The Clare Spark Blog

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).

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April 26, 2013

The television season goes Dark

The-following-posterI understand that television is not considered to be other than escapist entertainment, and not a business with pretensions to artiness or literariness, but there are many critics who treat its more upscale offerings with the reverence once reserved to Balzac (for instance see the indefatigable Terri Gross in her new interview with Matthew Weiner, creator of MAD MEN: in the part I heard she was insisting that Don Draper has a “death wish”).

As the 2012-2013 season draws to a close, I must say that I can’t remember a time when popular entertainment was as ideological driven or death-obsessed. I admit to not understanding the adolescent craze for vampires or zombies, though I have my suspicions of deranged right-wing Romanticism and/or the adolescent desire to irritate parents. But I do get the populist flavor, laced with morbidity, of the “better” television series, especially those directed to a more upscale, presumably educated audience.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not nostalgic for the television fare of the 1950s and 1960s, with its frequently inane glorification of the ordinary folksy American family, rural or urban. The material introduced in response to 1960s and 1970s uproars was critical, and though usually anti-American and anti-establishment, was at least well-written, brilliantly acted, and interesting to decode for its (typically populist) politics. Nor do I fail to detect the ideology in the theater popular when I was growing up: at least it was well meaning, brilliantly written, conceived, and performed—and relatively anti-racist.

But what to make of such paranoia-inducing recent offerings as the romantic necrophiliac THE FOLLOWING (internet gossip reports it renewed!), or the ongoing goriness in CRIMINAL MINDS, or the hatred of hedge fund managers profiting off evil drug companies as displayed in the last episode of PERSON OF INTEREST, or amoral rich people as were evident in DECEPTION, now in SCANDAL (the last episode particularly horrifying), MAD MEN, REVENGE, and even the apparently harmless and well-written THE GOOD WIFE, a love triangle that manages to mostly evade the possibly unparalleled corruption of  Democratic Chicago, while “Alicia” wavers between family and sex? (I have been watching reruns of the Dick Wolf generated LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT, and find the same targets, often Jews, who are either the perps, or who as doctors and lawyers are equally loathsome and corrupt. In one episode, “the Jewish mob” is identified as the most “vicious” of all: oh really?). Add to that the swipes at Mossad in the ever-popular NCIS, and you have the picture. Nouveaux riches and the government enforcers (cops, government regulators, other bureaucrats, CIA, etc.) whom the moneybags obviously control in their own depraved interest, are the chief subjects of the most watched television shows. The poster for THE FOLLOWING (illustrated) shows the dual character of those who serve “law and order.” “Order” for whom? is clearly implied as Bacon and Purefoy are halves of one whole, following Poe’s “William Wilson” in its doppelgänger conception, perhaps a major conceit in the imagination of television writers. And don’t be fooled by the poster for THE FOLLOWING. “Joe Collins” (James Purefoy) is clearly the protagonist, and he stepped out of character in the most recent episode to plug Green living. Why not Kevin Bacon, who barely appears in the series, and whose character is an alcoholic to boot?

Are there any shows with family values? So far, BLUE BLOODS takes the prize. Irreproachably Irish Catholic and upright, the patriarchal Reagan family holds together in contrast to the decadent cities it valiantly disciplines. Even THE MENTALIST is terror gothic in spirit, and clearly plays on fears of the French Revolution, while teasing its faithful viewers that “Patrick Jane” is actually serial killer Red John, rather than someone likely to be very high up in the government. It too is paranoia inducing. Shame on you Bruno Heller, who should know better.

And SMASH, the backstage story of a Broadway musical, will not likely be renewed, while its writing and music to these ears are downright embarrassing. What a hollow victory for hip movement culture, with its glorification of the ever-misunderstood and pathetic Marilyn Monroe.  On to off-Broadway, inter-racial understanding, and the offbeat rock musical and heterosexual and homosexual pairing off. On television, racism/miscegenation has disappeared if you sing and dance well enough. Perhaps the same thing can be said for new Broadway shows, either PC or living off the bones of its ancestors.

Meanwhile, few in show business pay attention to education reform, the illicit power of the teachers unions, and their relentless, media-supported attempts to undermine the educations of real black and brown children in urban ghettoes and elsewhere. Try to find a decent public school in NYC or Los Angeles, homes of those who write and produce the mindless (though technically advanced) shows I have listed above.

Now tell me the condition of our urban schools is not racist in the extreme. The better historians lament the world wide indifference as the Holocaust and other horrors proceeded in the 1930s and 1940s, while today the hippest among us wallow in gonzo ressentiment, apocalypse, the undead, blood and gore. Who is indifferent now? Should we blame the audience, who allegedly want this polluted fare?

Is the great American experiment going down? If popular culture is any indication, the answer is “you betcha.” Who needs a Fifth Column or other demonic forces when you have the entertainment industry?

[I have blogged about most of the tv shows mentioned here and others: see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/16/index-to-blogs-on-popular-tv-shows/.]

good wife cast pic chris noth 2 season 2

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.)


May 20, 2011

The Mentalist, Melville, Blake, and Israel

Simon Baker as The Mentalist

SPOILER ALERT. The popular CBS show The Mentalist had a razzle-dazzle finale ending its third season. Not only was Captain Ahab mentioned, and the Blake poem that had ended the second season reiterated, but Patrick Jane confronted his White Whale, Red John, and shot him point blank in a shopping mall. (It turned out to be a bad man, but not Red John.)

Melville’s Moby-Dick has come up several times in this series, as has the problem of vengeance, and it is the question of “vengeance” and the problem of evil (the dark side of humanity) that is being talked about today on the internet.  As I wrote in my prior blog on The Mentalist, the Blake poem, The Tyger* was written in 1794, and whatever religious resonances it contained, it also clearly referred to the Reign of Terror as perpetrated by the Jacobins. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/.) Today’s undereducated television audience is probably more attuned to the Devil or fallen flesh (our purported dark interior) than it is to specific historical provocations that stir a poet, so today’s blog will try to pull together some themes that question the morality of “vengeance.”**

If there is an archetype for humanity seeking to stamp out evil, it is the Promethean Captain Ahab, his leg torn away by “Moby Dick.” His detractors (Ishmael, Starbuck, and the majority of Melville scholars, including those on the Left) have seen him engaged on a vindictive, futile, hubristic, and suicidal quest to abolish evil. If one understands that Melville wrote his masterpiece after decades of antislavery agitation that threatened to sunder the Union, one must concede that Melville had a very specific evil in mind, and that was the Slavocracy, as Charles Sumner and other antislavery men termed the national government as controlled by Southern slaveholders.

It is not irrelevant that Melville was sometimes read as “Jew” or “Hebraic” and identified with Ahab, or that David Herbert Donald, Sumner’s biographer, hinted that he was driven by Jewish blood through his mother (See Vol.1 of Donald’s biography, published 1960; the tone abruptly changed in Vol.2, published 1970, possibly because of the civil rights movement.)

The Mentalist is no New Age mystic, indeed is not a psychic as some viewers would like to think. He is rather something very like Captain Ahab: a “fighting  Quaker,” a materialist, a loner, and a shrewd mapper of his environment and the correlation of forces arrayed against his individuality. He sees corruption in high places, and cannot count on the legal system to catch the serial killer who murdered his wife and child; indeed, the legal system is hand-in-glove, he thinks, with evildoers, and is compromised by procedures at best. Thus the analogy I am making here with Melville as moralist, horrified by the institution of slavery, but also constrained by his family’s connections to take a public stand against it, except through indirection in his novels.

Consider now the hatred directed against the Jews of Western Europe after their emancipation in the 19th century. The polarizing Dreyfus case was only one example of the failure of a civilized government to enact justice. It was from this crucible that the journalist and playwright Theodore Herzl conceived the daring mission to create a Jewish state.  What role did the civilized nations play in the accelerating events that led to the horrors of the 20th century, and that threaten the Jewish state as I write this? The “Christianized” West was either complicit or indifferent to the murder of the Jews, and continued their indifference when the war was concluded, notwithstanding the supposed U.S. or U.N. support for the Jewish state. It was the willingness of Jews to take casualties in 1948 (plus arms supplied by a briefly friendly Soviet Union with its own agenda) that made the State of Israel possible, not helpful Western intervention. Writing in the early 1940s, Harvard’s star sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose “structural functionalism” still rules in academe, and who was cited favorably by David H. Donald, in Sumner Vol.2,  described the Jewish national character as reflective of a vindictive, savage God. One wonders how many liberal Jews today are fleeing from that archetype, joining in the anti-Ahab chorus as they imagine themselves to be assimilating and therefore acceptable to the American ruling class, those “moderate men” who hold to “virtuous expediency” (as Melville would have derisively put it).

Which brings me back to the higher law. John Locke wrote of the right to resist authority when the constituted government breaks its contract with the people. What makes Patrick Jane such an interesting character to me, is his uniqueness in popular television crime shows (with the possible exception of Bobbie Goren). You don’t see many apparent atheists depicted as the hero of a series, by necessity taking the law into his own hands, appealing to rough justice, or perhaps the higher law of Truth and Justice, as Sumner would have seen it. (Compare this series with Blue Bloods, frankly Irish Catholic in its sympathies, and where everything is done “by the book.”)

What do we mean, then, by “vengeance,” and who defines its legality?  And is the unforgiving Bruno Heller/Patrick Jane a writer who is running ahead of public opinion, indeed running ahead of his own authorial instincts? Melville, insofar as he identified with his mad Captain Ahab, surely was.

*Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye.
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright.
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye.
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

** On 6-2-11, CBS replayed the episode “Red Moon” that ended with a serial killer, set on fire by a guard, reciting some lines from “The Tyger” as he is dying. This episode was written by Bruno Heller and directed by Simon Baker. After the poem is heard, “Patrick Jane” looks extremely disturbed. I suspect that both actor and author are more interested in “the dark [Satanic/vengeful] side” of our species than in exploring the moral dilemma of a man seeking justice in a society where the law is unevenly applied. See recap here: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_mentalist/recaps/310/recaps.php?season=3. To sum it up: without religion, the hounds of hell are released. “The mentalist” is an anti-hero, not meant to be an exemplar, and he is often read that way by viewers, as Red John himself. But as a regular viewer of the show, I prefer to think that both Heller and Baker know what they are doing, and that their view of [Ahab] coincides with mine.

May 20, 2010

“Criminal Minds,” “The Mentalist, “and the pathology of rural America

Thomas Gibson playing Agent Hotchner, scowling as usual

Like it or not, most Americans get their notions of mental health from the media, including the numerous television shows in which serial killers run amok until a heroic band of profilers psyches them out and captures them (but not before we have seen oceans of blood and other mayhem). (This blog was followed up here: https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)

This blog is about the episode of CBS’s Criminal Minds that aired on Wednesday May 19. Although most of their prey reside in Southern, Midwestern, and Western rural and small town America (and this was no exception), this show that weekly demonstrates the prowess of a team of Quantico-trained FBI agents strongly came out against the internet (especially social networks) as a source of murderous “narcissism”.  Social networks, they allege,  primarily cater to vanity, enabling voyeurs and attention-hungry techies (like last night’s murderer). The output of these new-fangled maddening inventions is [the Red State of] “Anarchy.”  Narcissism is understood as a craving for attention among those who, sucked into celebrity culture, have inflated self-esteem and have found their own niche among the pale-faced perverts who populate these non-urban , almost wilderness, areas. But most subtly of all, the killer of May 19 wanted to kill women who looked like him (this exact phrase was repeated several times). Is it too much of a leap to propose that embedded in this horrific tale is a reproach from liberals to conservatives who have resisted affirmative action and other liberal remedies for institutional discrimination? Are conservatives indeed all nativists and racists who instinctively abhor those who are “different?”

As many of these blogs have argued, “narcissism” is the term of opprobrium traditionally ascribed to everyone from actors and artists to mad scientists, and to technicians of every kind, including greedy Wall Street businessmen.  It is a reproach emanating from communitarians and other corporatists whose diagnosis of fascism rested upon the idea that Hitler’s supporters were one-sided in their educational training and experience, hence lacked the spirituality that can only be instilled by “faith.” Or Faith, Hope, and Charity, as Glenn Beck likes to put it, echoing centuries of religious conservative thought.

But Freud and many of his followers described normal or “healthy” narcissism, understood as having developed a strong sense of self, and being able to soothe oneself in the face of social disapproval or grievous losses. One gets this healthy narcissism from a strong maternal bond (I am referring here to attachment theory as put forth by John Bowlby), with separation from the mother managed successfully. This healthy narcissism grounded in early echoing and mirroring of the child’s feelings, never came up in the episode, though it could have been worked in by the didactic genius team member Reed, who did simply state that “narcissism” was overused in today’s world, while later brilliantly analyzing the facial configurations of the killer’s prior victims to show that key elements coincided with his own face.

It is true that Facebook is used by many for trivial purposes, but to condemn the internet as a dangerous innovation that causes sadism and a life of mayhem directed against women is overreaching of a particularly dangerous, almost criminal character. And, oh, the internet is possibly the most democratizing technical innovation of the recent past. Finally, the gatekeepers of mass media have lost their monopoly on news and opinion.

Added 5-21-10: The Mentalist ended its second season on 5-20, beginning with a televised murder of a woman alone in her bed. The plot was remarkably similar to that of Criminal Minds, except that now it is clear that the threat of the internet extends to ordinary persons possessed of movie cameras, hence able to realize their demonic ambitions. But this series was more literary than the Criminal Minds episode, for the serial killer Red John, having mentalist Patrick Jane in his clutches (wrapped in plastic), and wearing a mask quotes Blake’s famous poem about the Reign of Terror (1793-94), “The Tyger”. (The first verse only: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright /In the forests of the night,/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?)  . Blake’s poem is not just about the Terror and the furies of unleashed mobs, but about the Promethean element in civilization that has continuously terrified the upper classes in the Age of Revolution. But here is the best part. Patrick Jane returns to his austere prison-like room (the iron cage of materialism?), lies down on a mattress very much like a pallet, with the Red John smiley face painted on the wall above his bed. And the mentalist (an opponent of magical thinking) then repeats the first verse of “The Tyger.” What to make of this?
Bruno Heller (writer for the HBO series Rome as well as The Mentalist) is an educated man. He knows about Doppelgängers. As a rejector of the supernatural, Heller probably knows that artists who write against the centuries of magical thinking are educating the lower orders in the ways of empiricism, and no less than Herman Melville, fears the volcanic rage within himself that he could be releasing in the proto-revolutionary audience by mocking those who do not rely upon close observation of this world. Bruno Heller’s Promethean characters, no less than Melville’s Captain Ahab and other red-flag-flying usurpers of priestly authority, are both the mentalist (does he have a heart?) and Red John.

[Added 12-15-10. I have read Zoe Heller’s The Believers, and in an interview she discloses that her father Lukas is anti-religion, married a non-Jew, and has or had a half-sister who survived Auschwitz. I cannot know what her brother Bruno Heller’s beliefs are regarding the Nazi phenomenon. Perhaps he is one who sees the seizure of power as the revolt of the masses and an outgrowth of Jacobinism in the West. From the Wiki description of the family, they all sound like liberals.]

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