YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 25, 2014

Penny Dreadful’s sinister significance

Frankensteinpenny-dreadfulIn the US, late 19th century dime novels were the precursors to early movies; while in the UK, their similarly cheap, sensational analogs were “penny dreadfuls” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful).

Surely working class males are not the target audience for the Showtime series Penny Dreadful that is winding up its first season this Sunday; otherwise how can we account for its deliriously positive reception in, say, The New York Times and Vanity Fair?

CoverPennydreadful

When I commented on the postmodern slant of this serialized horror thriller with pretensions to serious high art, one of my Facebook friends groaned. This blog explains why I think the fact of its existence and its considerable success is of more than passing interest. I had thought that horror movies with their vampires, zombies, and werewolves, were for adolescents with kinky tastes. But the successful writer for screen and theater, John Logan, author of the series, is no kid (born 1961), but as a graduate of Northwestern University, he may have been exposed to the techniques of postmodernism, along with a fine cast of actors who probably think that this is a high class production, appropriately critical of this entirely mechanized, overly rational and complacent world we supposedly inhabit. I sometimes think that the production is a postmodern emphasis on “acting” and the theatricality of everyday life, along with the postmodern/youthful preoccupation with “real or fake”–a question I have taken up before on this website. What ever its intentions, it surely plays up the irrational and could not be more emphatically counter-Enlightenment, and even anti-American, particularly “America’s” treatment of its indigenous peoples, cruelly uprooted from their native culture and languages by the (ever imperialistic, expansionist) White Man.

Eva Green as Artemisia in

Eva Green as Artemisia in “300: Rise of an Empire”

The “pomos” deploy pastiche, distort prior genres, and appropriate prior cultural figures at will, all to comment on the horrors of modernity, most famously rendered in the Tory Terror-Gothic genre, and exemplified in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus. Wordsworth and Keats are quoted, while one of the characters is lifted out of Oscar Wilde—Dorian Gray. Significantly, Jack the Ripper hovers over the production, as if the overarching theme is that the social fabric is ripped to shreds by 19th century optimism and confidence in progress through market capitalism. Logan’s target is clearly the empiricism and leftish Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. For the theme of the series, despite its mysterious plot twists and turns and lurid developments, is this: science (including medicine) is destroying our humanity and fellow-feeling, by ignoring the invisible world of demons—the monsters within, and who lead us to perdition when we deny their existence. Even the Catholic Church, possibly represented in the lead character “Vanessa Ives” cannot overcome the unpredictable demon(s) who torments her. And that demon, if we are to believe the publicity surrounding the series, may be inescapable “destiny”–a doctrine opposed by Catholic emphasis on free will and personal responsibility for our actions. Or compare the emphasis on “fate” with Milton’s Mammon, a puritan character who argues for “hard liberty” instead of submission to an unaccountable deity. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/07/09/preconditions-for-hard-liberty/.)

Penny-Dreadful-image-penny-dreadful-36465075-450-253

Prometheus, along with the rest of the Judeo-Christian West, is so over. As for individual moral accountability, that too is gone with the desert wind: we are left with a reproach to God as Frankenstein’s omnivorously reading monster quotes Adam’s lament in the season finale: “O fleeting joys Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes! Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me Man?”[ Paradise Lost, Book 10]. More: in the last words of the season finale, a Catholic priest asks Vanessa (the femme fatale who stands in for the demon-touched, hence “sacred” Romantic artist, i.e., Logan himself) “Do you really want to be normal?”

For in Logan’s Terror-Gothic world, a world shared by many opponents of “modernity”, “reality” exists solely in a chaotic invisible world that is inaccessible to our eyes, brains, and control. Could anything be more reactionary, hence agreeable to antidemocrats?

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July 9, 2013

Preconditions for “hard liberty”

mammon-euro-dollar1I asked my Facebook friends what were the preconditions for a functioning democratic republic. The most offbeat answer was “peace and quiet.” I can understand that frustration with the constant undeclared warfare between fragments of the American polity. It is difficult to think rationally in the eye of the storm brought about by a strident, loud, and intrusive public culture. It is not only noisy out there, but many of our young cannot tell the difference between “real” and “fake.” Giving up on that distinction would mark the end of the American Idea.

I had promised a blog about democratic republicanism, but changed my focus because I believe that the libertarianism promised by the Founders is on the defensive. So is their New Rationalist belief in empiricism, checks and balances, separation of powers, and a marketplace of ideas. Through such novel institutions, “the truth will out.” The notion that America is a collection of truth-seeking individuals has been supplanted by collectivist, organic notions of grouplets, group-think, and exaggerated “racial” or “ethnic” differences. Walls have been erected that not even the most skilled rock climbers can surmount: anti-imperialists and postmodernists control teaching in the humanities. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/07/02/groupiness-group-think-and-race/.)  The result? Most of us lack the tools (or the access) to determine who is lying to us, and who is not. Between such doctrines as “the pastness of the past” (i.e., the past is unknowable) and cultural relativism, a.k.a. radical subjectivism, we are left scratching our heads. If they are so lucky as to be able to read Moby-Dick, our young cling to “interdependent” Ishmael, not truth-seeking  and demystifying Captain Ahab.

Not surprisingly, irrationalism has supplanted the rationalism of the 18th century. It helps to remember that vanguard ideas like “hard liberty” are always threatened by traditional elites, who prefer “servile pomp” (quoting Mammon’s speech, Book II, Paradise Lost. I am not claiming that either John Milton or Herman Melville was unambivalent about digging to find the truth.)

[Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 4: excerpt:]

Ahab’s uncracked militancy has been badly misread; it is Ishmael who deems him a monomaniac, Satanically driven to destroy God and his ship; the same insults were hurled at the abolitionists by proslavery apologists and utopian socialists or land reformers during the 1840s and 1850s. Rather, Moby-Dick relates one big moment in the West’s progress toward intellectual freedom and responsibility: the withdrawal of legitimacy from duplicitous or confusing authority. Just as the narrator Ishmael attacks Ahab in Moby-Dick, the narrator of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (1667) initially presents Mammon as a gold bug plundering Mother Earth:

There stood a hill not far whose grisly top

Belched fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire

Shone with a glossy scurf, undoubted sign

That in his womb was hid metallic ore,

The work of sulphur. Thither winged with speed

A numerous brigade hastened. As when bands

Of pioneers with spade and pickaxe armed

Forerun the royal camp, to trench a field,

Or cast a rampart. Mammon led them on,

Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell

From heaven, for even in heaven his looks and thoughts

Were always downward bent, admiring more

The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,

Then aught divine or holy else enjoyed

In vision beatific: by him first

Men also, and by his suggestion taught,

Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands

Rifled the bowels of their mother earth

For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew

Opened into the hill a spacious wound

And digged out ribs of gold. Let none admire

That riches grow in hell; that soil may best

Deserve the precious bane. (PL, I, 670-692, my emph.)

But during Satan’s council with the fallen angels, Mammon does not jibe with the greedy transgressor of Book I; rather, he demystifies Heaven and withdraws deference from an omnipotent yet darkly angry and inscrutable God. Has Milton turned about?

“…how wearisome

Eternity so spent in worship paid

To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue

By force impossible, by leave obtain’d

Unacceptable, though in Heav’n our state

Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek

Our own good from ourselves, and from our own

Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,

Free, and to none accountable, preferring

Hard liberty before the easy yoke

Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear

Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,

Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse

We can create, and in what place so e’er

Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain

Through labour and endurance. This deep world

Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth heaven’s all-ruling sire

Choose to reside, His glory unobscured,

And with the majesty of darkness round

Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar

Mustering thir rage, and Heav’n resembles hell?

As he our darkness, cannot we his light

Imitate when we please? This desert soil

Wants not her hidden lustre, gems and gold;

Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise

Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?

Our torments also may in length of time

Become our elements, these piercing fires

As soft as now severe, our temper changed

Into their temper; which must needs remove

The sensible of pain. All things invite

To peaceful counsels, and the settled state

Of order, how in safety best we may

Compose our present evils, with regard

Of what we are and were, dismissing quite

All thoughts of war: ye have what I advise.” [i] (PL, II, 247-283, my emph.)

Seventeenth-century readers would have understood Mammon’s mining as the insatiable curiosity of materialists; in the twentieth century, some influential anticapitalists claimed mining as a defining ingredient of the hated capitalist system.[ii] In his own eloquent voice, Mammon’s productivity was lustrous with moral effort and simplicity; “gems and gold” could signify enlightenment, for magnificent display had been tarnished as “servile pomp.” Mammon urges the rebel angels to abandon Satan’s war against God, to create a paradise on earth won by labor and endurance. Like Milton’s Mammon, the ‘radical’ puritan Ahab has chosen hard liberty: if necessary, the artist will stand alone against evil emanating from Leviathan (the State) or an irrationally punitive God himself, but with his sturdy (Providential) God-given conscience intact. Mammon’s freedom does not lead to anarchy or chaos: the golden reward is self-respect. [End, book excerpt]

In order to respect oneself, there has to be a (relatively autonomous, striving) self. Too much of our current political culture has abandoned the very notion of the individual. It is not too late to take it back. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/. The “intolerable national egotism” is declared off limits to the moderate men. Also for more demonic characters in contemporary culture see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/. This links Ahab, Bruno Heller, Patrick Jane, and Bobby Goren. For more on the suppression of primary source materials during the Melville revival, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.)

Mammon

NOTES.


[i] 30. Melville owned John Martin’s print of Satan Presiding At The Infernal Council (the setting for Mammon’s speech). Mammon has described the “peace and prosperity” that Henry Murray would accurately associate with the promises of “Communism” (not capitalism!), contrasting communism with militaristic, power-mad fascism in his 1943 report on Hitler’s psyche. Milton’s ambivalence is explored in Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (New York: Viking, 1977), but without discussion of Mammon’s speech. For a nineteenth-century reading, see David Masson, The Three Devils: Luther’s Milton’s and Goethe’s (London: Macmillan, 1874), 26-27. Masson revealingly distorts the text: “…some of the Angels appear to have been ruminating the possibility of retrieving their former condition by patient enduring…Mammon was for organizing their new kingdom so as to make it as comfortable as possible.”Cf. Carolyn Merchant’s use of Milton’s Mammon as arch-destroyer of the earth in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row paperback, 1983), 39. The “radical subjectivity” that stems from the fortunate fall has been seen as the beginning of “the power of positive thinking,” or “bourgeois order”; see Herman Rapaport, “Paradise Lost and the Novel,” Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost, ed. Galbraith M. Crump (New York: Modern Language Association,1986), 141; Rapaport teaches PL and M-D together; in a richly ambiguous remark he notes Milton’s “satanic leviathan” as an influence on Melville.

 

[ii]31. See W.P. Witcutt, “The Future of Capitalism: A Note on Werner Sombart,” American Review 5 (Oct. 1935): 531-535. Comparing Hilaire Belloc and Sombart, Witcutt wrote (praising Sombart for his “objectivity”), “By Capitalism Sombart, like Belloc, does not mean the régime of private property, as opposed to Socialism. He does not give any formal definition of Capitalism, but indicates certain constituent elements which may be gathered under the following headings. The Capitalist system consists: (1) of a society stratified into possessors of capital, entrepreneurs, and workers, pure and simple, possessing nothing–proletarians; (2) in the intensive utilization of mineral wealth. “The exploitation of riches beneath the earth’s surface and modern Capitalism are at bottom different aspects (natural and social) of one and the same phenomenon” (531-532). Cf. A.J. Penty, “The Centrality of Money and Machinery,” American Review 6 (Nov. 1935): it is the financiers who first destroyed the stability of peasant life and property. The merchants were the “haves,” the peasants the “have-nots” (2-3).

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

January 26, 2013

Decoding “Call me Ishmael” and The Following

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

The new Fox horror-thriller series The Following has elicited mixed reviews, for instance though The Huffington Post welcomes the new arrival, a Los Angeles Times review is annoyed that the use of Edgar Allen Poe’s oeuvre is misleading, for Poe unambiguously took the side of detectives, not criminals. (http://www.latimes.com/features/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-woe-is-poe-the-tv-show-the-following-is-a-horror-20130121,0,3709889.story).  But critic Carolyn Kellog distorts Poe’s writing, which, as a whole, takes a strong stand against the French Revolution, the fearsome guillotine (“The Pit and the Pendulum”?) and the entrance of mass politics upon the world scene, a locale that was formerly monopolized by aristocrats, Kings, and the Church. I have argued elsewhere that there is a strong Tory subtext to other popular detective television shows, binding autodidact, somewhat unstable detectives such as Bobby Goren (Law and Order Criminal Intent) or Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) to serial killers such as “Nicole Wallace” or “Red John.” (In both these series, Moby-Dick and the obsessive monomaniac Captain Ahab are frequently mentioned.)  In a related narrative, social psychologists and other academic liberals associated with the Roosevelt administration blamed mass murderer Adolf Hitler on mass politics and the deployment of propaganda through the burgeoning mass media. If my analysis is correct, then the “Hollywood liberals” who dominate movies and television writing are crypto-Tories and antidemocrats, notwithstanding their populist love for “the People” whom they defend against the depredations of finance capital and its offshoots in the “Nazi” Republican Party.

In the following excerpt from a draft of my book Hunting Captain Ahab, I mentioned Poe’s story “William Wilson”. I could have added his lesser known story “The Man of the Crowd” (a figure of the death-dealing Romantic Wandering Jew and a symbol of the revolutionary mob). This excerpt starts with the last words of the allegorical novel that preceded Moby-Dick, narrated by a character Melville named “Taji.”

[ms. excerpt:] Melville’s Mardi concludes with his salute to Milton and an acknowledgment of their shared peril, dove-like, god-like, “brooding on the vast abyss.” Taji has “seized the helm” with “eternity…in his eye.”

“Now I am my soul’s own emperor; and my first act is abdication! Hail! realm of shades!”–and turning my prow into the racing tide, which seized me like a hand omnipotent, I darted through.

Churned in foam, that outer ocean lashed the clouds; and straight in my white wake, headlong dashed a shallop, three fixed specters leaning o’er its prow: three arrows poising. And thus, pursuers and pursued flew on, over an endless sea.[end Mardi excerpt]

Melville’s Satanic self-assertion as writer and social critic was linked to ambivalent feelings about departed relatives whose deaths he imagined his (and their) flaws had hastened.  These were flaws he associated with Hebraic Puritans, the bad Jews whom Tories claimed had delivered the world-destroying materialist epistemology.  In his Tory mood, the “rebel senses” were the keys that unlocked state secrets to over-reaching “citizen-kings.” Father Mapple’s Sermon instructed Ahab; Taji, Mapple, and Ahab were repudiated by Ishmael.  Two incompatible definitions of “balance” were at odds: for Ishmael, the lesson of Narcissus was the key to it all.

“Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson.”

A depressed young man with a classical education, well-born but fallen on hard times, narrates the tale of a mad whale hunt from the vantage point of the lone survivor.  His first words, “Call me Ishmael” may be a rectification of the too deferential opening sentence of Poe’s “William Wilson,” the story of a dissipated student and his stalking conscience whom he finally stabs in the mirror, thus destroying himself.  Since Ishmael tells us at once that the legend of Narcissus is “the key to it all,” the reader may sense he is not reading the commonplace tale of a White Whale and his pursuers, but a work with literary ambitions and mythic resonances. And since the bargain between Faust and the devil is also discussed, and since Ahab instructs his first mate that the whale hunt is an allegory (Ahab to Starbuck: “Hark ye, the little lower layer,”) the reader might surmise that nothing that transpires is to be taken as a literal representation, that the unclassifiable composition has something to do with the search for knowledge in the modern world at a time of waning upper-class authority and the not unrelated encounter with non-Western societies.

[Poe:]  What say of it?  What say [of] CONSCIENCE grim.  That spectre in my path?  (Epigraph to Poe’s “William Wilson,” publ. 1839) [end, ms. excerpt]

FabularFilms_WilliamWilson

We are left with a looming question: What persons and what institutions determine the precise content of our superegos? And what institutions and practices have so weakened our “consciences” that serial killers and other psychopaths/sociopaths pick up a weapon and murder their families and/or their surrogates? Why does the auxiliary television material to THE FOLLOWING advertise “a love story” between the detective (played by Kevin Bacon) and the serial killer (played by James Purefoy)? Is Poe’s “William Wilson” more timely than ever? Hint: the answer will not be found in blaming modernity, the internet, public education,  and its alleged narcissistic and Faustian characters. (On the perils of the internet, see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/. The internet as a source of pathology was briefly mentioned in the second episode of THE FOLLOWING. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/17/moderate-men-and-dirty-jews-part-two/, on the general ignorance even among intellectuals regarding antisemitism and its dynamics.)


January 12, 2013

Hate, “hard liberty,” quick fixes

mammon_11-0x550LOVE VERSUS HATE. First, take a look at this blog on Bullies: https://clarespark.com/2012/09/19/bullies/ . Although the Harvard education school was mostly fixated upon the controversial switching of gender identities and the promotion of Love as against Hate, Harvard hasn’t noticed that the “binary opposition” of love and hate is one of the staples of Western Civilization. One of the great fears of the “paleo-conservatives” is that the Religion of Love will lose its authority, hence unleashing sinister forces (the “neocon” haters) upon the land. Paleos dig Chuck Hagel.

Here is how “Ishmael” described the most striking feature of Ahab’s personality: “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it” (p. 184)

That word “hate” is omnipresent in our political and social discourse: we condemn “hate speech” as if changing the language with which we describe the poor, minorities, women, and gays will remove “prejudice” against them and summon that lost “unity” we believe once characterized “the nation.”

And before Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, the British essayist William Hazlitt declared his hatred of tyrants:

[William Hazlitt on love and hate, 1819:] “To be a true Jacobin, a man must be a good hater;…The love of liberty consists in the hatred of tyrants…I am no politician and still less can I be said to be a partyman: but I have a hatred of tyranny, and a contempt for its tools…I deny that liberty and slavery are convertible terms, that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, plenty and famine, the comforts or wretchedness of a people, are matters of perfect indifference. That is all I know of the matter; but on these points I am likely to remain incorrigible.”

Both authors, Hazlitt and Melville had read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written under censorship. Surely each of these close readers noticed this speech from Book II, possibly Milton’s own (semi-silenced) voice speaking through “Mammon,” who counsels the other fallen angels to avoid war with the heavenly Deity:

…how wearisome

Eternity so spent in worship paid

To whom we hate. Let us not then pursue

By force impossible, by leave obtain’d

Unacceptable, though in Heav’n our state

Of splendid vassalage, but rather seek

Our own good from ourselves, and from our own

Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,

Free, and to none accountable, preferring

Hard liberty before the easy yoke

 Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear

 Then most conspicuous, when great things of small,

 Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse

 We can create, and in what place so e’er

 Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain

 Through labour and endurance. This deep world

Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth heaven’s all-ruling sire

Choose to reside, His glory unobscured,

And with the majesty of darkness round

Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar

Mustering thir rage, and Heav’n resembles hell?

As he our darkness, cannot we his light

Imitate when we please? This desert soil

Wants not her hidden lustre, gems and gold;

Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise

Magnificence; and what can heaven show more?

Our torments also may in length of time

Become our elements, these piercing fires

As soft as now severe, our temper changed

Into their temper; which must needs remove

The sensible of pain. All things invite

To peaceful counsels, and the settled state

Of order, how in safety best we may

Compose our present evils, with regard

Of what we are and were, dismissing quite

All thoughts of war: ye have what I advise. (II, 247-283)

HARD LIBERTY. (Milton’s seventeenth century puritan readers would have understood that mining was a symbol for discovery and the search for knowledge.)

As I write this, the media are obsessed with the gun control debate, as if further restricting access to certain weapons and ammunition, in tandem with greater attention to “mental health” and the “culture of violence” will prevent future massacres by deranged young men. These would be amusing quick fixes were not the cultural issues so deeply conflicted and elusive. Why are they so hard to explicate and pin down?

  1. There is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes mental health, nor has there ever been. Freud is still an offbeat interest and thought to be crazily sex-obsessed himself (thus fulfilling the image of the carnal, divisive, lucre-obsessed Jew).
  2. No one can measure the effects of “media violence” or pictorial violence; for centuries images of violence were thought to provide a salutary catharsis for the pent-up rage that all civilized societies inflict upon children. And since Freudian ideas are off the table, for instance that siblings consciously and unconsciously harbor murderous impulses toward each other and toward one or both parents, we have no critical tools to evaluate “violence” by psychopaths. True, the better “profiler” shows on television do point to parental abuse as the long term cause of serial killing. But they do not mount any substantial critique of masculinity, even when favorite sports figures sacrifice their lives, like gladiators of old, to entertain the masses.
  3. As for the femmes fatales (the woman with gun), the general subject of motherhood is evaded, even as film noir is celebrated by film critics. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/.)
  4. Who doesn’t hate anything smacking of “the Puritan” today? We throw around the words “freedom” and “liberty” as if these had the same meaning to everyone, or worse, we invert freedom and slavery, so that we do not see our lust for “servile pomp.” Nor would we imagine that such a dark passion only binds us closer to Leviathan.
Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale

December 15, 2012

Sandy Hook, Candide, Melville, and the problem of Evil

Obama tears Candide, chapter 20, transl. Robert M. Adams (Norton, 1966):

[Candide:] “You must be possessed of the devil.

[Martin, the disillusioned scholar and Manichean:] He’s mixed up with so many things of this world that he may be in me as well as elsewhere; but I assure you, as I survey this globe, or globule, I think that God has abandoned it to some evil spirit—all of it except Eldorado. I have scarcely seen one town which did not want to destroy its neighboring town, no family which did not want to exterminate some other family. Everywhere the weak loathe the powerful, before whom they cringe, and the powerful treat them like brute cattle, to be sold for their meat and fleece. A million regimented assassins roam Europe from one end to the other, plying the trades of murder and robbery in an organized way for a living, because there is no more honest form of work for them; and in the cities which seem to enjoy peace and where the arts are flourishing, men are devoured by more envy, cares, and anxieties than a whole town experiences when it’s under siege. Private griefs are worse even than public trials. In a word, I have seen so much and suffered so much, that I am a Manichee.

[Candide:] Still there is some good.

[Martin:] That may be but I don’t know it.

(The late Robert M. Adams, who taught me expository writing at Cornell long ago, is the editor of this edition of Candide, and in his concluding essay, questions Puritan attitudes toward “work.” And yet, Voltaire was a great favorite in the Soviet Union.) Adams is devastating on the subject of Candide’s choice of the garden: “He has never really been with us, and now he is going back where he came from, to some place outside Europe, outside history, outside people, to a cold and lonely garden where the vegetable he cultivates most assiduously will be his own indifference, his own self-sufficiency. He was, is, and always will be, an outsider….” (p.173, 1966 edition. But see Georg Brandes’s two vol. biography of Voltaire, II, p. 145: To cultivate one’s garden signifies “…work [that] keeps them free of three great evils: ennui, sin, and poverty”…it is the consolation he holds out to the human race”. Nobody read Brandes any more (though Peter Gay, Ben Hecht, and I did), but Peter Gay sees Candide’s garden as all of Europe, and Voltaire as a radical activist.)

Adams's  Candide

It is instructive to see how each of us responds to this mass trauma in Newtown, Connecticut, so far away for most of us. We know almost nothing about Adam Lanza and his family dynamics, or even the details of the massacre, but we do know (or don’t know) about our own psyches. How we defend ourselves against such a horrible event is a way to get out of the inner darkness how each of us is put together. I will be watching myself, and hope others will try be self-reflective too.

In the comments that follow, I see each type of response as a defense against grief, seeking some soothing explanation or tactic that will explain what no one yet knows. I would suggest that all the comments, whether they come from Left or Right, tell us more about how we defend ourselves against our own often repressed rage and fears of loss of control than they tell us about Adam Lanza and the so-called ‘tragedy’ at Newtown, Connecticut.

I started with Voltaire’s controversial comment (speaking through Martin) on the problem of evil, a preoccupation that runs through the fiction of Herman Melville, who was well aware of Voltaire as a great infidel. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/. Melville invokes Voltaire in his annotations to Book 9 of Paradise Lost  comparing Milton with Voltaire as an “Infidel”.*  These annotations were read aloud by me on Pacifica Radio in 1990, but not published by scholars until years later, and then later detoxified by moderate men and women. It is notable that Lillian Hellman’s orignal play of Candide was watered down in later productions of the Bernstein musical.

Adam Lanza (20)

Adam Lanza (20)

What follows are various conservative diagnoses and advice regarding the ‘tragedy’** at Sandy Hook:

Bill O’Reilly: inexplicable “evil” [and he is expressing learned helplessness: nothing can be done (same as “the poor will always be with us”)]. Same with Hannity. Evil is the devil. A forensic psychologist agrees with Bill. Bill puts on camera a third grader Lebinski and her mother: questions her mother in front of the dazed child. Saturday: Monica Crowley: massacres not preventable [can’t imagine preventable measures and psychiatric interventions] Dr. Keith Ablow is an outlier on Fox: believes that the mental health system has broken down. Geraldo hates this kind of talk.

Family therapist/clinical psychologist; the community is gathering to start the process of healing. Various clerics: the children are angels now and are safe.

Second Amendment male, cited on FB: Obama had faked his tears to start the process of disarming the people.

[Added, 12-17-12: Bernie Goldberg criticizes Right wing for explaining massacre as absence of God in the classroom and abortion. O’Reilly brags that his was the best coverage on Cable (Friday) ignoring that he was intrusive in showing victims and a parent. He is also convinced that Lanza wasn’t a loon.]

Moderates, liberals and left-wing radical diagnostics follow:

The allover liberal explanation has three parts: 1.the shooter and his family; 2.poor security/wide availability of guns; 3. a culture of pervasive violence. All reiterated on Fox News Sunday.

Larry Mantle on NPR radio KPPC, Los  Angeles, interviewed a traumatized teacher and pushed her to divulge her feelings. Later some of her distraught words are repeated on NPR, All Things Considered.

Mental health professionals and other liberals: gun control. (i.e., regulate) (12-15) Dr. Alvin Poussaint from Harvard: a rare event, but gun control, conflict-resolution study should be supported.

Charles Krauthammer (12-14): he killed his mother and those attached to her. [He did not know that she was a volunteer teacher and that his brother claimed he might be autistic or suffer from some unstated learning disorder.]

Lefty on FB: Chicago is worse than this, and no one cares. Rich people get more sympathy and coverage. Lefty (cont.) OR Reagan started this by attacking warehousing of crazies (it was actually Carter’s idea, said one of my FB friends).

Dr. Alan Lipman (mental health professional) all signs were there that he could have had psychotic break into paranoid delusions. The aim is prevention and treatment. (Fox guest 8:20 am Saturday) See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Lipman. Founded a Center for the Study of Violence at Georgetown. Followed by Robert Stone, who diagnoses autism and lack of empathy.

Centrist child of divorce: incomprehensible and doesn’t know how he will explain it to his children.

Wall Street Journal editorial: a crushing event: let our emotions run pending further revelations.

*From Hunting Captain Ahab:  [To Mitford’s comment on Milton’s religious wanderings (xcix):] He who thinks for himself never can remain of the same mind.  I doubt not that darker doubts crossed Milton’s soul, than ever disturbed Voltair [sic].  And he was more of what is called an Infidel.

[To Satan’s seduction of Eve, Book IX, Melville double scored: “And life more perfect have attained than fate/ Meant me, by venturing higher than my lot.”(689-690) A partially erased note follows “Why then was this forbid? Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,/ His worshippers?”(also double scored, 703-705):]  This is one of the many profound atheistical hits of Milton. A greater than Lucretius, since he always teaches under a masque, and makes the Devil himself a Teacher & Messiah.  [Leyda marked the word “Fate” with an arrow].

[To Book X (5-11): “…for what can scape the eye/ Of God all-seeing, or deceive his heart/ Omniscient? who, in all things wise and just,/ Hindered not Satan to attempt the mind/ Of man, with strength entire, and free will armed,/ Complete to have discovered and repulsed/ Whatever wiles of foe or seeming friend.”]  The Fall of Adam did not so much prove him weak, as that God had made him so.  From all that is gatherable from Milton’s theology, the Son was created.  Now had the Son been planted in the Garden (instead of Adam) he would have withstood the temptation;–why then he and not Adam?  Because of his created superiority to Adam. [Leyda writes] “M adds, later: Sophomoricus”[1]

[Book X, (41-43): “…man should be seduced/ And flattered out of all, believing lies/ Against his maker…] All Milton’s strength & rhetoric suffice not to satisfy concerning this matter–free will.  Doubtless, he must have felt it himself: & looked upon it as the one great unavoidable flaw in his work.  But, indeed, God’s alleged omnipotence & foreknowledge, are insuperable bars to his being made an actor in any drama, imagined.[2]

NOTES to Melville’s annotations of Paradise Lost.


                [1] The word “sophomoricus” was written with a darker pencil and separated from the rest of the comment.

                [2] The two volumes, heavily annotated, with numerous comments erased or cut away, were offered anonymously at auction; Jay Leyda and Hershel Parker were allowed to copy the marginalia; Leyda reported to Harrison Hayford, 3/6/84 that Parker was “hysterical.”  Leyda’s transcription was sent to Harrison Hayford 2/4/85.  In a letter of August 18, 1987, Parker wrote to me “After seeing M’s Milton marginalia I would be more wary than ever about deriving a coherent ideology from M’s texts.” Hayford, at my request, sent me a photocopy 4/3/90. I have analyzed these annotations (and their implications for Melville scholarship) on Pacifica radio (KPFK) to celebrate Melville’s birthday in 1990 and 1991. Their new owner had refused access to scholars, but later sold the volumes to another anonymous collector who subsequently donated the Milton volumes to Princeton University.

A few of the comments have appeared in Robin Sandra Grey, “Surmising the Infidel: Interpreting Melville’s Annotations on Milton’s Poetry,” Milton Quarterly Vol.26, #4 (December 1992): 103-113.  Grey (a Milton scholar, not a Melvillean) finds herself “confronted with a reading of Milton’s ambitions and agenda so curious, indeed perverse, that perhaps only William Empson in Milton’s God and Harold Bloom in Ruin the Sacred Truths would have regarded Melville’s assessments without significant surprise” (110).  She has read Melville as another Satan: “…Milton’s powerful dramatic depictions of Satan’s character have interest for Melville largely as they reveal the tension in Satan between his former glory and virtue and his present degradations and viciousness” (fn 21, p.112).  Her comment on the Devil as Messiah annotation states her preference for “skeptical” Ishmael over “frenzied” Ahab, linking only Ishmael to the masque because of his remarks in the Whalers Chapel.  Cf. David Hume, HE, Vol.7, 337 (year 1660) on Paradise Lost, which he fervently admired despite its not being wholly purged of (Leveller) cant.

Hershel Parker has been reticent about these matters in the first volume of his authoritative Melville biography, Volume I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1996).  Of the marginalia I have quoted, Parker has heretofore published only the comment about Milton and Voltaire (618).  (One other annotation is quoted, in which Melville ratifies separation of church and state in Mitford’s Introduction.)  Paradise Lost influenced Moby-Dick insofar as “Melville took some of Ahab’s qualities as Satanic opponent…”Ahab is the “tyrannical captain” likened to Cromwell  (699-700).  Parker does not discuss the mysterious prior provenance of these books.  In the Historical Note to the N/N edition of Moby-Dick, Milton is mentioned, but his battles are aesthetic ones alone, as these sentences hint: “ [While writing the book] Melville’s imagination for many months had unrolled at will a panorama of Milton’s dubious battle on the plains of heaven. The dubious battle being waged in his study was…the most intense aesthetic struggle yet waged in the English language on this continent.” (617).

Parker has answered my query regarding his mental states while copying the annotations, also his intentions regarding their publication:  “I will not write an essay on HM and Milton, ever, but I will refer to the marginalia–esp in the 1860 chapters.” “I wasn’t hysterical, except that Jay and I were at the Phillips Gallery in 1983, not 84, with someone else who simply would not shut up his mouth. It was excruciating. I was not hysterical about the annotations. As usual with me, the excitement came long afterwards—when I was drafting the 1860 chapters of volume two, in 1990 or 1991 or so. I sacrificed myself and led him around the corner so Jay could have some time with the books. By the time the volumes came back on the market I had a set of the same edition and carried that up to NYC and got all I could, in the right place on the pages; the day was very overcast, but I got some erased words, nevertheless, by carrying the volumes to the windows.  Princeton tried some very expensive processes, I understand, but failed to recover erased words….I will quote all the recovered annotations in the LOG, I assume, when the time comes.” (e-mail message to me Nov.1, 1997).

** I questioned the current meaning of ‘tragedy,’ inferring that “in the best of all possible worlds” only hubris or a similar character flaw can bring us down.

September 21, 2012

Milton, Mason, Melville on Free Speech

[ Part two of this blog can be found here: https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/]

This blog is about the intellectual history of the First Amendment, and is meant to establish a longer lineage than is asserted by many conservatives, who look to George Mason, Jefferson, and Madison as the most significant proponents of freedom of expression. What is ignored in this claim is the always contested nature of free speech, even within its most ardent progenitors. Also overlooked are the material interests of Southern slaveholders whose doctrine of State’s Rights was threatened by the abolitionist and/or antislavery arguments of such Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

For instance, George Mason (1725-1792), the famous Antifederalist, wanted slaves as property to be protected, although he opposed the extension of slavery and the importation of further slaves. During the 1830s, when slavery was defended as a positive good, Southerners forbade not only the education of slaves, but stopped the importation of Northern abolitionist arguments through the mails. It is obvious that material interests in slave property trumped any desire for universal freedom of expression in the slaveholding states.

Go back several centuries to Milton’s famous polemic Areopagitica (1644). In my book on the revival of Herman Melville’s reputation in the 20th century, I devoted an entire chapter to Milton and Melville’s ambivalent relations to puritanism, as expressed in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poet’s relationship to his character Satan (often taken to be the mouthpiece of Milton in his most radical mood) has generated a “Milton industry” of even greater size and consequence than the “Melville industry.” Conservatives, moderates, and radicals alike, appropriate the life and art of these authors as their ideologies demand. What each party suppresses is the ambivalence of either Milton or Melville—an ambivalence that we may find within ourselves as we save our own hides from the bullies we encounter at every stage of life. This is an issue that educators fail to address, no matter how well-meaning their efforts may be at reforming the current system of public education. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/09/19/bullies/.)

What follows is a short collage followed by some comments that begin chapter 4 of my book. I lay out the obvious influence of Milton’s great tract upon Herman Melville, feeding his passionate desire to see and describe “things as they are.” For Melville, struggling with inner censors, was “the mind its own place?”

Gustave Dore Satan

[From Areopagitica:] I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye on how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand unless wariness be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.

[Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 1849, regretting his negative critique of Francis Parkman:] Hereafter I shall no more stab at a book (in print I mean) than I would stab at a man.[i]

[From “Baby Budd”:] Claggart hesitated not an instant. Deliberately advancing within short range of the sailor, he spoke. Without emphasis and in a tone more musical than ever, he delivered the accusation point-blank into his eyes.[ii]

Seventeenth-century radical puritans and scientists produced many of the innovations we associate with the intellectual foundations of democracy: along with the partial legitimation of dissent and libertarian ideas in some strands of Reformation thought, the scientific revolution fortified older political theories of popular sovereignty and constitutional government. The explosion of printing made subversive ideas broadly available to a growing and confident middle-class reading public eager to be emancipated from arbitrary authority. Milton published Areopagitica in 1644; it is perhaps the most eloquent statement ever conceived on behalf of intellectual freedom; it thrills to the puritan marrow of my bones. But that appeal to the censor was framed during the English Civil War soon after the Independents, reacting to new assertions of popular sovereignty, had put down rebels to their Left in the City of London, stifling vox populi (the voice of the people) in favor of vox salutaris (the voice of public safety).[iii] After the Restoration Sir Henry Vane was beheaded, and the bodies of the chief regicides, Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw, were exhumed and hanged as an example to would-be republicans. All overtly radical thoughts were chased back to the Tartarean realms from which the Titans had emerged. Milton, who had been named as secretary of foreign languages in 1649, was taken into custody then freed, perhaps by the intercessions of Andrew Marvell and Sir William Davenant or because the restored regime concluded that the blind poet, though formerly an official of the commonwealth and ardent defender of the regicides, was now harmless. [end, book excerpt]

Surveys taken by liberal journalists present a troubling picture of American attitudes toward freedom of speech. (See http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=2621.) As we contemplate the direction of the current administration, attributing blame for the jihadists uprisings on a video of dubious origin (as opposed to terrorism only weakly resisted), we should be aware that the freedom of speech libertarians desire is not universally supported, not even in our “free republic.”

In my next blog, I will compare those accounts of the 1960s written within a religious framework, versus my own accounts of 20th century social movements as written by a materialist historian (myself). The subject highlighted will be a populism that has never been vanquished, and that retains all its baneful, irrationalist influence on our politics.


[i]  2. Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 12/14/49, N/N Corr., 148-149.

                [ii]  3. Herman Melville, “Baby Budd, Sailor,” quoted in Freeman, Melville’s Billy Budd, 317. In “Billy Budd,” Claggart’s glance is linked to an “asylum physician” and to the mesmerizing Rabbi in Clarel.

       [iii]  4. See Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993). On Davenant and Milton see http://www.oxfordtimes.co.uk/lifestyle/history/8927697.How_a_friendship_saved_John_Milton_s_life/.

May 24, 2012

Curiosity and the femme fatale/Jew

Infinite Zombie via Matt Fish?

Infinite Zombie via Matt Fish?

May 21, 2012, the 8th season of the Fox TV production of House, starring British actor Hugh Laurie, wrapped up, amidst much commentary that the genius diagnostician Gregory House, was not only drawn from Sherlock Holmes, but, like Doyle’s creation, was interested less in people than in solving puzzles. Such intense curiosity, I suggest, is continuous with ancient imprecations against the unleased human passion for knowledge. Prying into the secrets of upper-class authority, ostensibly a departure from the bliss of human “community,” is taken to be the sin of our First Parents that sent them into a world of toil and death. John Milton, a radical puritan, was a heretic whose notion of the Fortunate Fall was off limits, apparently even to the current generation of radicals, including the New Leftists of Verso Books. In the mid-1990s, I was politely ordered by my editor to drop my chapter on Milton and those of his Tory contemporaries and their spawn, who stigmatized “Satanic” curiosity that would “trace  the wayes/ Of highest Agents, deemd however wise,” even though Herman Melville had marked and commented provocatively upon this and similar passages from Paradise Lost,  Book 9 in his own copy, a volume sequestered by a party or parties unknown until 1984.

David Shore, the Canadian creator of House, is not a doctor himself, but a lawyer, perhaps one who has internalized the lesson of Eve and the serpent, and thus dutifully followed the Tory narrative warning of untrammeled curiosity and the thirst for knowledge that sunk my chances of publishing with Verso Books, for I refused to drop the chapter that explained why Captain Ahab’s passion for finding truth had to be thwarted by the chief Melville revivers of the interwar period in the 20th century, a period that also witnessed the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum along social democratic (progressive) lines. ( Nor did I puff F. O. Matthiessen or Lewis Mumford, as demanded.) I trust that readers of my blogs will have seen an abundance of Platonic “noble lies” perpetuated by the “moderate” men tracked throughout the website.)

I doubt that many young readers will slog their way through Melville’s masterpiece, but the character of Captain Ahab is now marshalled by anyone and everyone in the “consciousness industry” as a tyrant, arch-imperialist and terrorist, to be contrasted with the “survivor” Ishmael, whose understanding of human connectedness allows him to warn us of Ahab’s hubris, and lonely death. Indeed, it is de rigeur to mention Captain Ahab unfavorably, unless you are associated with the demonic, for instance the characters of Bobby Oren in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, or Patrick Jane, in The Mentalist. During the Melville Revival of the 1920s and 1930s, Ahab was drawn as either HM himself, a romantic artist, or as tragic hero. The switch to Ahab as Hitlerian occurred about 1939, and has held firm ever since.

Mead Schaeffer’s Ahab

Eventually, I did find a publisher for my book (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, Kent State UP, 2001, paperback rev.edition 2006), and here is a part of the introduction from the chapter that the Verso New Leftists declared not their cup of tea.

[“The Modern Artist as Red Specter: ‘an irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress'”:]

While writing Moby-Dick, Melville confided to Hawthorne that “all my books are botches,” in this instance blaming the market. Was the author in control of Ahab’s slides from Miltonic modern artist to [his deceased older brother] Gansevoort’s war-hawk? The characters Ahab, Isabel and Margoth et al are variants of the Romantic Wandering Jew: representations of historical memory, the critical intellect, and radical political will that Melville would by turns hug or annihilate; the erasure of dissent, however, would not remain invisible; the red specter inevitably returned either to energize/haunt his efforts at self-understanding, or to taunt his capitulations to illegitimate authority for the sake of his overburdened family: in his state of perplexity, “none felt how the leveller pines.” Aided by Melville’s newly-uncovered annotations to Paradise Lost, I have argued that the virtually canonical “Left” reading of Ahab as an anticipation of Hitler slanders Ahab, and ultimately Melville; rather, Ahab is a creature of the radical Enlightenment, partly masked by the author[i] and misread by the narrator, a decayed patrician.

In previous pages I gathered excerpts from Moby-Dick to contrast Ahab’s self-understanding with Ishmael’s anxious portraiture. Ahab’s project both to demystify duplicitous authority and unlock the secrets of nature (even his own) is frequently described with metaphors suggesting the inexorable drive of the steam engine: railroading Ahab’s lunges toward the whole truth, “hit or miss,” are expressed in images of digging, stabbing, piercing, and striking through masks; however, it does not follow that the whale hunt must be a microcosm of industrial society desanctifying and degrading nature, or that Ahab’s curiosity is necessarily sadistic, an expression of pride, self-gratification and separation from the human community, as William Blake or other corporatists would have seen it.[ii]

Arshile Gorky, 1944

Of course, Melville’s churning tableaux roll in the perilous conditions of labor; but the demonic character that bathes the narrative and Ahab with a blinding charisma is the invention of the Carlylean Ishmael, for whom the insatiable curiosity of the lower orders evokes the vindictiveness of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and fantasies of strangulation. Parallel passages from Pierre have supported my contention that Ahab, like Pierre, is that “something unmanageable” in his creator.[iii]

In this chapter I continue my examination of Hebraic radical puritanism as imagined and transmitted by antidemocrats, proposing that Melville, like his modernist predecessor Milton, either concealed his sympathies with the materialists or vacillated in his identification with their supposedly corrosive politics. The late seventeenth-century poet Dryden and the eighteenth-century historian and philosopher David Hume elaborated Tory portraits of the radical puritans as destructive primitives likened to ancient Hebrews: it is the admixture of (Jewish) fanatical religion and politics that creates an irrational political culture. Nineteenth-century conservatives cured left Romantics such as the Chartists, Melville, and themselves; like Thomas Carlyle and Melville’s relatives they adopted the Christian conversion narrative, moving adolescent (Hebraic) Byron out and upward to socially responsible Goethe. Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (a founding text of Christian Socialism) is the literary example that charts this transformation. Charles Francis Adams’s account of the Antinomian controversy (1636-38) types the New England spirit as essentially importunate and Hebraic. An English Carlylean’s 1924 essay on Byron completes the gallery of trapped Anglo-American conservatives, force-fed and held to knowledge, beating down their own deliciously unruly impulses.

The criteria for naturalistic literature proposed by 1930s radical liberals summon Hawthorne’s red specters. Ahab’s immediate precursor was Hawthorne’s “Virtuoso”–the heartless Wandering Jew as archivist, historical memory, and genius. Ahab and his cannibal crew may be seen as representations of modern art-making, revolutionary puritanism, and mass politics (cubistically developed): romantically decadent activities for Tories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for Hawthorne in the 1840s, and for neo-classicizing conservatives after the Bolshevik triumph in 1917. Organic conservatives are still operating upon (Hebraic) hot heads and cold hearts; distinguished professors Henry Farnham May and Richard Brodhead allude to the persistent Hebraic strain in American culture. I begin with some snapshots of the disappearing center, crumpled by bad Jews and other rebel angels.

Patrick Stewart Ahab

[Ishmael:] I was struck with the singular posture he maintained. Upon each side of the Pequod’s quarter deck, and pretty close to the mizen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow. There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say ought to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye. And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe (124).

 [Jay Leyda’s high school notes on “The Bible”:] a. Made English Puritanism 1.Puritan tradition fostered in the English and American people most of the best and most distinctive qualities. b. Inspired the poetry of Milton and the prose allegory of Bunyan. c. Gave Cromwell and the Pilgrim Fathers that which made them honourable, stead-fast, and self-reliant d. Has had direct influence on the English language and thought for 1. Has influenced the great Victorian writers 2. Men so diverse as Emerson and Whitman came under its spell. 3. Abraham Lincoln a genius in statecraft and speech was essentially a man of one Book–the Bible. 4. For two centuries it has been the source of Anglo-Saxon idealism. 5. It has shaped the English language. 6. It has been the supreme spiritually creative force in the civilization of the British Empire and the American Commonwealth…William Tyndale’s translations…sought to serve the common people. [iv]

[John Crowe Ransom to Allen Tate, Independence Day, 1929:] Satan is the Hebrew Prometheus and so conceived is Milton’s P.L.–he is Lucifer the Spirit of the Renaissance, the Zeitgeist of Milton’s own age of science, very boldly displayed and only rejected after a proper hesitation. But then Jesus is Lucifer again….[v]

For Thomas Hobbes (1651), curiosity was not an aid to reason, but an indomitable passion of the mind that could overpower and displace the less troublesome pleasures of food and sex:

Desire to know why, and how, is CURIOSITY; such as is in no living creature but Man; so that Man is distinguished, not onely by his reason; but also by this singular Passion from other Animals; in whom the appetite of food, and other pleasures of Sense, by praedominance, take away the care of knowing causes; which is a Lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continuall and indefatigable generation of Knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnall Pleasure.[vi]

In 1659 “Committees of the Good Old Cause” were virtuous vampires: “This Dragon it was and a monstrous Beast,/ With fourty or fifty heads at least,/ And still as this Dragon drank down Blood/ Those heads would wag and cry “good-good-good!”[vii] Not surprisingly, the same tumescent Heads exasperated Dryden in Absolom and Achitophel:

The Jews, a Headstrong, Moody, Murm’ring race,

As ever tri’d the’extent and stretch of grace;

God’s pampered People, whom, debauch’d with ease,

No King could govern, nor no God could please;

(God they had tri’d of every shape and size,

That God-smiths would produce, or Priests devise:)

These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,

Began to dream they wanted liberty;

And when no rule, no president was found

Of men, by Laws less circumscrib’d and bound,

They led their wild desires to Woods and Caves,

And thought that all but Savages were Slaves.[viii]

Similarly, the moderately moral philosopher Thomas Morgan advised his countrymen to cherchez la femme fatale:

…this wretched, insufferable Scheme of Superstition and false Religion, as it made Multitudes of Bigots and Enthusiasts at first, so it has brought forth the Atheists of this Age. For Atheism is the natural Production of Superstition and Enthusiasm, as one Extreme terminates in and begets another. An Atheist is only an Enthusiast between sleeping and waking, in which Sort of Delirium he feels enamour’d on Reason as his Mistress and Idol, while he is raving against God and Providence. The Enthusiast is commonly grave and severe, but the Atheist gay and ludicrous; one groans and sighs, and the other laughs and sneers at Religion and Virtue. The Enthusiast in his sullen, dumb fits is always premeditating Mischief, and waiting for an Opportunity to rush upon you unawares, or stab you in the Dark; but the Atheist gives fair Warning, and cries out I am unclean, unclean! Stand off or I shall destroy you. In short, there are only two species of Distinction: the Enthusiast is deeply and sullenly out of his Wits, and the Atheist is merrily and rantingly mad, and both are owing to the same general Cause, and may be reckoned the two opposite and distinct sorts of religious lunacy. And one of these Extremes Men must always necessarily run into, when they bewilder themselves in the Clouds and Darkness of their own Imaginations, and seek for Religion anywhere, without the Boundaries of moral Truth and Righteousness. [ix]

(For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2011/10/01/updated-index-to-melville-blogs/, or https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/.)


                [i] 1. Fybate Lecture Notes (Berkeley, California, 1968) reads Ahab as a seeker after truth, at any cost (29), also mentioning oscillations between Ahab and Ishmael (31).

                [ii] 2. See Stephen C. Behrendt, The Moment of Explosion: Blake and the Illustration of Milton (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983), 71. “Separation was for Blake the essence of the fall of man; the establishment and assertion of separate individuals was an act of fragmentation grounded in pride and totally destructive to unity, integration and wholeness.”

                [iii] 3. The recently expurgated Pierre, edited by Hershel Parker and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (New York: HarperCollins, 1995) excises those passages that reveal Pierre as a writer, a move justified by Parker’s theory that the novel as he conceives it was finished before the middle of January, 1852 (xl), and that further additions were an impulsive response to bad Moby-Dick reviews and an insulting book contract. Such abridgement also has the effect, however, of obscuring Ahab’s “private quest” as art-making/ demystification, an aim found in a lower layer than the one perceived by Starbuck.

[iv] 4.  Leyda Papers, NYU, Folder pre 1930, Sunday School clippings, etc.

[v] 5. Quoted in Thomas Daniel Young, Gentleman in a Dustcoat (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1976), 191. See 162-163 for Ransom’s concept of romantic irony as the dualism produced by disillusion with youthful hopes for happiness in the garden of this world, a happiness brought about by man’s shaping interventions.

[vi] 6. Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Part I, Chapter 6, 26. Do Melville’s rebel senses refer only to repressed sexuality, or are they the necessary stimulus to thought, reflection, and the perilous search for “why” and “how”?

[vii] 7. “Sir Eglamor and the Dragon, How General George Monck slew a most Cruell Dragon, Feb.11, 1659,” Rump: or an Exact Collection of the Choycest Poems and Songs Relating to the Late Times (London, 1662), 371-2.

                [viii]  8. Quoted in Cicely V. Wedgwood, Politics and Poetry Under the Stuarts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1960), 165-166. Dryden’s fears have not been quieted in her commentary: “Leaving aside this sidelong shot at current political theories about noble savages, this is the statement of a man who remembers the excesses of the sects and disorders of the Civil War, who sees how fatally easy it is to kindle into flame a ‘Headstrong, Moody, Murm’ring race’–a one-sided but not untrue description of the seventeenth-century English–and who knows how difficult it will be to put out the flame once kindled?” Her obituary (NYT, 3/11/97) credits her with “vivid narratives [that] told the story of Britain with the common man in mind.” A fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, 1953-68, Dame Veronica was born in 1910 to Sir Ralph Wedgwood, a baronet and former head of British Railways, and was great-great granddaughter to Josiah Wedgwood (identified here as a potter).

                [ix] 9. Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher. In a Dialogue Between Philalethes a Christian Deist, and Theophanes a Christian Jew (London, 1738, second edition), 219-220.

April 29, 2012

Fred Siegel’s melodrama of 20th C. cultural history

Fred Siegel of Manhattan Institute

The April 2012 issue of Commentary features an article by Fred Siegel, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/how-highbrows-killed-culture/#.T5mYHo0AEuZ.facebook. (See his mini-bio here: http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/siegel.htm). The essay is illustrated with a picture of Sir Lawrence Olivier as the diabolical King Richard III.* Originally a lecture delivered to the American Enterprise Institute, the essay has been featured on Facebook, and is highly recommended by John Podhoretz and Richard Miniter.

The chief villains in Siegel’s piece are a motley crew of intellectuals who ostensibly spurned “mass culture” and “mass man”: Nietzsche, the Frankfurt School critical theorists (he mentions Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse), Ortega y Gasset, Dwight MacDonald, Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, the disillusioned authors of the 1920s (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson). Siegel’s positive models are few, but include Robert M. Hutchins, T.S. Eliot, and apparently himself, as one who would rescue “middlebrow” taste and  “American” culture from its hatchet men. Presumably this rectified “mass culture” is the best defense against leftist and liberal statism and elitism. (Using the word “rectified” was a Marcel Duchamp joke, readers.)

Siegel, seizing the populist moment, perhaps, wants to rehabilitate the middle class and its cultural preferences away from European-friendly snobs, Western Marxists (i.e., the Frankfurters), Trotskyists, and New Leftists too. How he manages to upgrade organic conservatives such as Hutchins and Eliot to his camp is a mystery, for Hutchins was a leader in the semi-public move toward elite rule, relying for instance on Plato, no friend to the masses. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/, https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/ .  Hutchins and his cohort of “moderate men” were frank and public manipulators of the masses Siegel says he wants to protect, while Eliot abhorred “free thinking Jews” (1933) as well as the decadence they brought to the modern world, e.g. “damp souls of housemaids” in his “Morning at the Window” (1920).

I have been thinking how to transmit my horror upon reading this type of “cultural” history. There have been other such essays and books purporting to give the reader a cultural or intellectual history of the 20th century, similarly detached from politics, economics, social movements, divergent ideological/class tendencies, and the ongoing controversies over the causes of wars and mass death. For these “culturalist” authors, “ideas” or “philosophy” are the very engines of history, and anyone who protests such a narrow view is ipso facto a “historical materialist,” i.e., a communist or fellow traveler: I am not one of this dragon crew.

There is simply no way to describe “culture” in a vacuum. It is the same problem that I have found in other culture war manifestoes. The organic conservatives (like the apparently “moderate” Siegel) ignore all of history since the invention of the printing press. (For a summary of elite moves against autodidacts see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/11/review-excerpts-re-hunting-captain-ahab/, especially the “letter to the editor” that explains why non-literary critics should read my book.) Without examining constant offensives against the newly literate and numerate, there can be no “cultural history.” That would entail, pace Siegel, a grander sweep than he has attempted. Since the Reformation, elites threatened with displacement have drenched ordinary people with counter-revolutionary, irrationalist propaganda, whether this takes place in the realm of language, or ongoing debates about human nature, or the Promethean impulse (always a bad thing for fact-hoarding elites), or what is or is not fascism.

To summarize, readers and other consumers of “culture” want to know (or should want to know) what they are experiencing. They (should) want to know who made this or that artifact (including her or his biography), who paid for it, what it is saying about past and present conflict (for instance, the range of permissible emotions, disobedience to authority or the role of Church and State in everyday life). Whereas organic conservatives are interested in none of the above. They value social cohesion/stability over the search for truth, and trot out their celebrities or institutions du jour to guide the autodidact away from the abyss they most fear:  rupture with the past—a past that is irrationalist to its very core, that makes objective reality a phantasm pursued only by monomaniacs.

Fred Siegel wants to be a friend to mass man, and to the middle class consumer of masscult. Yet he does not respect the very tools that ordinary people have developed, against the wishes of their betters, critical tools such as science and empiricism that point the way to understanding past and present.

*Siegel actually praises the large audience for the television presentation of Richard III, as part of his defense of 1950s popular culture, but the deployment of Richard III’s face by Commentary suggests a group assassination to me. And where oh where is John Milton and Paradise Lost? It was once the case that Shakespeare and Milton were paired as the leading voices in English poetry, but Milton, the puritan whose “Satan” “traced the ways of highest agents,”  and, with Eve, purveyor of the Fortunate Fall, is nowhere to be found in the new dispensation.

January 28, 2012

Popular sovereignty on the ropes

I restarted my study of the making of the Constitution last summer, by reading the Federalist papers. I was very excited by Hamilton’s insistence on popular sovereignty as the fountain of authority that must guide the entire national government. (See “…The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Federalist #22. Hamilton’s emphasis, pp. 106, 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]  Hamilton stressed the power of the House of Representatives as the most direct route to popular control of government.  I was somewhat shocked as the prevalent [Jeffersonian] line on Hamilton is that he was an aristocratic thinker, a quasi-monarchist, who declared at a banquet that the people were “a great beast.” This latter slap at popular sovereignty was disseminated by medievalist Henry Adams and no one has found any source to confirm Adams’s claim. And unlike Stephen Douglas (1813-1861), Lincoln’s opponent in the election of 1860, Hamilton was an abolitionist, and would not have approved Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty as a route to the expansion of slavery.

So popular sovereignty is linked, not to Rousseau’s notion of the general/popular will (an idea taken up by the Jacobins and by many leftists today), but to the deliberations of a representative republic in which, presumably, the House of Representatives is recognized by the other branches of government as the “pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.”

We find ourselves in campaign season 2012, in a condition where “the consent of the people” is a dream. In this polarized polity, characterized by a mish-mash of religious, class, ethnic, and gender politics, plus a stunning ignorance of political science, economics, and American and European history and its bevy of authoritarian social movements, “the people” is a convenient fiction of demagoguery, trotted out as counterpoint to special interests/”the nanny state.”

What is a writer with a popular audience to do? What can educators, including parents do to instill the mental habits that would make a representative republic more than a recruiting slogan for conservatives wishing to restore the divine origin of such innovations as the separation of powers and checks and balances, all treated in The Federalist? “God” is barely summoned in The Federalist; rather these pamphlets were a scientific, materialist proposal and defense of an unprecedented national government that would halt the slide to chaos and failure under the Articles of Confederation. In other words, the U.S. Constitution, and before that, the Declaration of Independence were products of the Enlightenment. “We” were “Nature’s nation” and for many, bearers of a providential mission to lead the world in political democracy. When Charles Sumner asked “Are We A Nation?” in 1867, he envisioned “the people” as the repository of those rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and these “human rights” were universal, and, quoting James Otis, “without distinction of color.” (Sumner also nodded to The Federalist and Alexander Hamilton). For more on Providence and American mission, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.  Rooseveltian internationalists, leaders of the American Studies movement, were fond of trouncing the Founders and Herman Melville’s character Captain Ahab as messianic and rabidly imperialistic. Thus “American exceptionalism” has come to signify the overweening desire to dominate the globe, rather than the invention of a nation grounded in natural, i.e., universal human rights: life, liberty, and property. However guided by “Providence,” Sumner, echoing Hamilton, insisted that “We the people,” not “We the States” were the source of legitimacy for the Constitution.

Although the President, along with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has called for the beefing up of “education,” neither one suggested a debate about the curriculum, particularly who decides what is the proper training for would-be citizens. And by citizenship, I refer to a person with the critical tools to read the messages that affect all our choices. Here is where “protestant pluralism” founders on the rocks of neo-tribalism, “local control,” anti-intellectualism, populism, proto-fascism, and other man-traps. We are cathected to leaders who pander to our pre-existent prejudices or to reverence for ancestors, to the fear of an eternity in hell, to the presidential horse-race that the media promote, and to groupiness and partisanship in general. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/06/groupiness/.) We are constantly agitated and may enjoy the inner turmoil and suspense that a political campaign offers. Or we may feel helpless and permanently unrepresented in both high and popular culture, so turn inward to self, or to family, friends, employment, sports, and sex/personal appearance as primary sources of identity and purpose. Patriotism is taken to be a tic of “the Right,” not exemplary loyalty to human rights without distinction of color.

What I complain about here regarding our distorted and irrational political culture may seem so cosmic, so impossible to rectify, that a sane person must give up on this country and its survival as a representative republic. Indeed, the powerful historian Edmund S. Morgan denies that we ever had anything resembling popular rule, nor does he appear to be sanguine as to its prospects. (See his 1988 publication: Inventing the People, in which he concludes that we have moved from the politics of deference to the politics of leadership, i.e., the manipulation of public opinion.) So to be concrete, I suggest that each person concerned with her or his child’s education, encourage that child to look up the phrase “popular sovereignty” and to urge her or his teachers to discuss it in the appropriate grades. But first, look inside, and what do you see?  A terrified conformist, a romantic renegade, or a competent voter–a faithful seeker after truth, the universal truth that is the foundation of human rights and the glory of American nationality?  Captain Ahab, arousing his crew to find and fight Leviathan, echoed Milton’s Satan in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, when Ahab/Satan declared “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Are We a Nation? For more on Alexander Hamilton and the search for truth see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/ (retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke).

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