The Clare Spark Blog

July 17, 2011

Literary criticism, Ravitch variant

John Martin’s Satan in Council, the engraving owned by Melville

[Before you read this, see, retitled “Diane Ravitch and the higher moderation.”]

Here is a quote from Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police (Knopf, 2003). She writes “Most state standards say that literature is to be read by students for a social or political message, as though every poem or novel is meant to be a social or political commentary rather than an expression of the writer’s emotional, spiritual, or aesthetic concerns…The study of literature as knowledge and as art is either missing from the standards or has been supplanted by utilitarian concerns.” (p.124)

Such statements make me tear my hair. Every author, no matter the subject matter, is situated in some particular relationship with the dominant cultural and political trends of a specific historical context; they may affirm or reject dominant values, but they do not stand above the fray, with the affected neutrality of state-appointed mediators. If a writer’s book or poem is heavily influenced by a previous author from a different period, as, say, Melville was responding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in Moby-Dick, it is not because of aesthetics alone, but because a certain unresolved philosophical issue remains current and problematic to Melville. In his case, it was the matter of moral accountability and the limits of human agency: were his actions predestined or chosen freely? The question of moral action could not have been more relevant to the period of composition for Moby-Dick: the slavery question was already dividing the Republic, along with Melville’s own family as the decades wore on. And then there is the issue of patronage, irrelevant to Ravitch’s declaration of war against extra-aesthetic or extra-“literary” readings. In the case of Melville, writing his Supplement to Battle-Pieces during the intial year of Reconstruction, patronage was everything, for his support group was entirely conservative Democratic (though a very few of his relatives stood with the Radical Republicans like Sumner and Stevens, but the sprinkling of “radicals” did not affect his pocketbook; see

Ravitch is complaining about bowdlerization and abridgment as perpetrated by “puritan” “perfectionists” of both Left and Right, and I am with her as she complains about pervasive censorship in textbooks and speech codes. But to throw in this plea for literariness is reactionary, but it does line her up with the moderates I dissected here: So, in spite of her oeuvre standing athwart the general protocols of moderate progressives,* Ravitch is revealed as an organic conservative, unwilling to open literary texts to students, not matter  how much she may complain about the language police,  heading her chapters with epigraphs from George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. She has her own axe to grind, and it doesn’t serve young readers, though she would like to introduce them to our “common humanity,” speaking to us today across the vast reaches of “time and space.”

What are the implications for teachers of English or any other language that delves into the literary inheritance? It is impossible to teach literature as an artifact plucked from history and held up to scrutiny in the classroom, wiped clean of its historical referents. Teachers at every level need to be well-grounded in the humanities, with an understanding of competing ideologies at the time of the artwork’s production. It is hard to find such persons today, for the Left has captured the relevant terrain.  Will classical liberals meet that challenge and develop their own objective, courageously analytic approach to the teaching of our literary and cultural heritage? Or will it abandon the field to censors from the Left, Right, or Middle? How will they teach Milton’s Paradise Lost, if at all, for it remains one of the seminal texts of modernity. For most of the 20th century, Melville’s annotations to Book IX, approving of some of Satan’s arguments in the seduction of Eve, remained sequestered from scholarly and public eyes. These lines had to do with the accountability of rulers to the ruled, as viewed by a radical puritan, as Milton undoubtedly was. (See; some of Melville’s annotations to Paradise Lost are described at the bottom of the blog.)

Now teaching kids about that controversy would be a blow for artists and everyone else.

*Compare to this statement on p.163: ” The schools should be the great agencies of social and intellectual equality. This they cannot be unless they can give all children access to great literature and teach them the joy of reading. Reading is the key to future success; it builds vocabulary, it enriches the imagination, it opens new worlds. …What literature offers is a common denominator for understanding human experience; it allows human beings to recognize one another across time and space.” These are the banalities of the progressive movement: the religion of humanity (a kind of leveling and internationalism) has removed the stark differences of people in societies that do not allow dissent or the development of individual rights with those democratic republics that do encourage individuation, innovation, and critical thought. Although Ravitch is hostile to Gary Nash’s notion of European, Amerindian and African convergence in colonial America, she has her own version of community. It is a distinction without a difference.

November 21, 2010

“…through a glass darkly”?

Citizen Milton’s Satan in Revolutionary France, 1792

Irrationalists, quoting Scripture (1 Corinthians 13:12), have argued for centuries that we “see through a glass darkly.” The scientific revolution” changed all that. Some things are shiningly settled. My friend the late Norman J. Levitt wrote books to that effect. Moreover the notion that facts are only true in their historical context and because powerful people say they are true, is one of the chief weapons in the arsenal of the antidemocratic propagandists.

Obviously, if we are denied access to the opinions and actions of powerful figures, we are denied the possibility of objectivity. Here are two quotes from my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival:

[Milton, 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.

Ahab [“The Quarter-Deck”: ] “…Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”

While shopping my manuscript, I quickly learned that hostile academic readers identified me with Captain Ahab. A know-it-all authoritarian, I was insufficiently humble in attacking established stars of the “Melville Revival.” By basing my synthesis on archival findings, I had crossed the boundary between legitimate criticism of institutions and blasphemy. Some reviewers of the published book complained that I was hysterically and vindictively trying to punish Pacifica Radio for purging me. In the words of one Charles Olson groupie, I had “written a Medusa book.” This in spite of my tentativeness in drawing conclusions about the mechanics of the Revival, or the motivations of the chief revivers. I had presented my evidence and asked the reader to think about what could be known and what could not be known about Melville’s ambivalent texts and those of his often ambivalent biographers.


It was such experiences with critics that have led me, as a lover of Milton’s great Areopagitica, to suggest that the invention of the printing press was the decisive turning point in the history of the West. Yet, just as the availability of books gave heart to the lower orders who, as “reasonable creatures”  were created in “the Image of God,” it also enabled the old ruling classes to spread their propaganda, propaganda intended to diminish self-confidence in the potentially troublesome, newly literate, beneficiaries of their tender mercies.

Perhaps our greatest and most demanding life-task is the constant interrogation of our thoughts and feelings: To what extent are our ideas and actions grounded in deference to families, experts, and the state; to what extent can we be said to have enough facts to rest on those findings, formulate a synthesis, and take reasonable action? I never said it would be easy.

fallen flesh

« Previous Page

Create a free website or blog at