YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 20, 2014

“Taking responsibility” for ourselves and society

free_will-net_This blog is about personal responsibility and how that demand affects the writing of both personal histories and world historical events, especially catastrophic ones that cause mass death.

Personal responsibility/free will: I have written before about the ambiguities of assigning praise and blame for our life choices. When Melville did it in his under-read novel that followed Moby-Dick, Pierre, or the Ambiguities,  his mother thought he was crazy and called in Oliver Wendell Holmes (author of the snake-infested book Elsie Venner) to evaluate his mental health, perhaps to institutionalize him. Yet on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are told to take an individual (not collective) inventory of those whom we have harmed, to change our conduct, and to make restitution to the damaged victim of our presumed malice or carelessness. (On Melville and free will see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

If only it were that easy to determine cause and effect. My baby may be screaming and driving me to distraction, but is her wailing an inherited feature of her temperament, or is she responding to negligent or stupid parenting choices, possibly picked up from my own parents?

Social responsibility. I have been reading books by historian Michael Burleigh, who seems quite Catholic to me in his leaning toward a late 19th century version of social democracy (see Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum 1891), and Burleigh’s rejection of the liberal theory of “totalitarianism” that equates Nazism and communism, i.e., Nazism is bad because of its divisive racial theories, while the Soviet Union attacked the materialist, modernizing bourgeoisie; at least the Reds were not wigged out with nationalism and differing sets of rules for hedgehogs and foxes. Or perhaps Burleigh dislikes the notion of totalitarianism because it implies total control and hence threatens his notion of free will and personal responsibility, without considering the details of Soviets versus Nazis. (The latter seems more likely, as he uses and abandons the term “totalitarian” depending on his outrage.)

Burleigh’s co-authored book on the Nazi “racial state” (with Wolfgang Wipperman) makes the point that Hitler’s welfare measures were directed solely at biologically fit, sports loving Aryans and depended on a racial hierarchy that demeaned Jews, feminists, Slavs, gypsies, “asocials”, and homosexuals; i.e., he is protecting the welfare statism of social democrats and their much vaunted “tolerance” of “difference.”


As an historian of the Third Reich, Burleigh has emphasized individual acts of resistance to Hitler’s policies, thus linking him to those believers in free will and social responsibility. BUT this traps us in the double bind so plainly delineated in “crazy” Melville’s novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) that mocked “virtuous expediency.” (On the latter see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.)

I would gladly atone for my lapses and flaws; would that I knew what they are, without the inevitable muddle. “These free men are  not as free as they think” wrote Melville in his novel Mardi (1847).


August 9, 2013

Melodrama and its appeal

melodramacrThis is a defense of the professional historian, with a further exploration into the dream world of melodrama. It follows https://clarespark.com/2013/08/08/neocons-academics-melodrama/, and is best read in sequence. (I am taking sides here, but I ask my “side” to take into account the emotional attachments and psychodynamics of the other side, as well as our own.)

It is all too easy to fall into the language of myth. Thus, in the current polarization over whether or not Ronald Radosh is a hero or a villain (the same goes for his antagonist Diana West), we may fail to transcend these mythic stereotypes. I brought up the pervasiveness of “melodrama” in my last blog, but skipped over it too quickly.

There are numerous academics who insist that relatively objective history is impossible and we should not even bother. Hayden White, who ran the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, is one example: he argued that all history falls into the genres of literature, such as comedy or tragedy. His “postmodern” followers are legion and many are in powerful positions. I remember Richard Slotkin, a popular professor at Wesleyan University and author, arguing with me at a conference on “The American Hero” in 1978: There could be no escape from myth, he insisted. I demurred, though I will acknowledge that it is no easy task to get beyond our own subjectivity, i.e., the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world we inhabit. These are stories that often have well-defined heroes, villains, and victims. I was born August 10, 1937, and I still amaze myself with reconfigurations of my family dynamics, all my decisions, including “mistakes”, or the flaws vs. the achievements of my immediate family. I pride myself on my willingness to correct errors, to escape the vocabulary of melodrama, but wonder if I have fallen into yet another trap of subjectivity, that perhaps I will never “get it right.”

This is healthy. Before I went to graduate school in history, I was compiling a context for sentimental song as popularized by the middle class before the American Civil War. It was then that I saw the abundance of songs about dead infants (infant mortality and early death were common occurrences at that time). I also noted the prevalence of heroes, villains, and victims in the discourses of the popular composers of the antebellum period. I read Melville with relief, because I was sick to death of gruesome lyrics and relieved to see him satirize the emotional vocabulary of his contemporaries, for instance in his send-up of sentimental novels: e.g., Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). Decades before Freud, Melville interrogated his family myths, and ended up with ambivalence and ambiguity, not only about his choices, but with respect to his feelings about his closest relatives, particularly his “dear, perfect father.” Melville, then and now, remains one of our greatest critics of melodrama. He has been punished for that, and his major crime would seem to be that he makes us think; he makes us look inside ourselves, and even then, we may never know what motivated us for certain. His protagonist “Pierre” is another Captain Ahab; there are striking similarities between the two Romantic heroes. The lesson they suggest to the reader is that the Romantic hero may be an antihero, even a destructive, demonic force. Melville does not conclude with clear answers; he leaves readers somewhat disoriented, but with a curious, questioning, unsettled kind of mind.

My major gripe with populism is that it hews to the romantic vocabulary of hero, villain, and victim. “The people” (rarely defined in terms of precise socio-economic class or gender) are the victims of villains (finance capital, warmongers, Jews, political hacks, professors), but are saved by designated heroic figures who finger the bad guys, and turn victims into heroes as they defend the people’s detective against onslaughts from, say, Ronald Radosh or the professors and journalists who support his critique of Diana West. Years ago I faced a similar situation when I defended Walter Lippmann from the followers of Noam Chomsky. Some Chomsky-ites remain unpersuaded by my essay, remaining heroically tied to their Leader against the forces of “manufactured consent” (i.e. the Jews who allegedly control mass media. See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/). I understand these attachments, which find their force in loyalty to families and other authority figures who hold the powers of life and death over us, even as we grow into adulthood.

Hero-worship is unattractive and un-American whether it emanates from the far Left/counter-culture or far Right. To many populists, Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated by the briefly opened Soviet archives after 1989, but they do not appreciate the caution that trained historians and political scientists exerted when interpreting the revelations about real Soviet espionage during the 1930s onward. It is one thing to recognize that Alger Hiss was guilty, but quite another to implicate all liberals, including FDR and his entire administration in Hiss’s treason. It is one thing to argue that the Cold War was fought too weakly (see Revel’s How Democracies Perish, summarized here: https://clarespark.com/2011/04/09/jean-francois-revel-and-father-mapple/), but quite another to claim that “America” was occupied by commie-symps for decades, that “America” was “betrayed” by moderates and liberals.

None of this mythologizing would be possible without the “culturalist” turn in the writing of U.S. history, combined with the promiscuous gullibility of internet users who enjoy being “inside-dopesters.” Economic interest was erased in favor of ethnicity and identity politics. The result? Our journalists usually fail to describe partisan conflicts (including internal ones) with accuracy. In my reading, economic factors and beliefs about wealth creation are foremost in the current polarization: Keynesians believe that the State is the most potent force enabling upward mobility, while free market theorists generally favor supply-side economics as more efficient and conferring improved life chances. (This conflict about wealth creation perhaps splits both political parties internally, complicating our political culture insofar as it goes unnoticed.)

What makes historians competent is their long immersion in archival research and their participation in the most heated debates over what really happened in the past. This is a discourse that has no place for hero-worship. We ought to suspect everybody, including ourselves as we read what is available to our eyes. It takes the most arduous training and ongoing humility to become even somewhat competent in any sub-field. To imagine that an English major from Yale, armed with only a bachelor’s degree, is able to correct the work of an entire group of historians (some of them sadder-but-wiser neocons), is to indulge oneself in the most primitive and destructive thinking.


January 17, 2013

Bondage and the family

familymealMost of this website is preoccupied with the myth of the perfectly happy family. Soothing images of family solidarity are the most potent weapon in the arsenal of psychological warfare, and our worst villains are those that call into question the ever benign nature of the “family.” [This blog should be read along with https://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/.]

Reconstructed families are everywhere: even when there are inner tensions or mayhem on television dramas, the bad, criminal, murderous, deranged family is finally exposed, and the good family (usually in the form of government teams) rescues the viewers from those who would call many “nuclear” families themselves as the locus of malaise and even more painful and dangerous problems.

Currently, there is a national battle raging over ownership of guns in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre of December 13, 2012, two weeks before Christmas, and several weeks after Thanksgiving: holidays that bring onto center stage the idealized family, where there is not only abundant food, but where a halt is usually called to addressing or acting out the troubled relationships between generations and between siblings. Did enforced family harmony bring out murderous impulses in Adam Lanza or Nehemiah Griego? We can’t know, and no one is asking the question anyway. Better to blame guns, movies, and videogames, although I have seen one report that Griego was sheltered from video games and “the culture of violence.”

I had originally intended to write something today about the academic preoccupation with the history of slavery. Although there are few academic jobs available today in the humanities, “African-American Studies” remain comparatively short-handed, and much work has been done in the field since I studied for my doctoral field exams in the early 1980s. But even then, the existence or non-existence of slave families was the subject of hot debate, and Richard Slotkin’s first major book, Regeneration Through Violence, condemned Uncle Tom’s Cabin for using the appeal to family solidarity as its primary argument for the abolition of slavery. On the other side of the issue, leftist historian Herbert Gutman wrote a rosy book on the persistence of families, even under the condition of slavery.

I had not thought about the focus on slavery in U.S. history and in American Studies as having anything to do with the idealized family, or families in general, but then I thought about the general appeal of bondage and sadomasochism that could be motivating an obsession with an institution that no longer exists in this country.

While researching the teaching of the humanities in 20th century America, I saw quickly that 1. Marx was much less controversial than Freud; and 2. What made Melville so controversial and the “Melville” revival so fraught with conflict was Melville’s exposure of the crazy-making family, especially in his novel of 1852, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Some of the Melville critics even read Protestant Melville as a Jew, in my view because he shattered the myth of the perfectly happy family that academics were bound to promote. After all, were they not in academe, its departments based on the premise of solidarity with each other as seekers after truth, and never given to nasty rivalries and forms of professional mayhem?

Both Left and Right appeal to families today: the Left wants to bolster collectivist entities against the notion of the “narcissistic” individual of the “laissez-faire” anti-statist Right; while their opponents tout the father-headed reconstructed family (done in by welfare policies and feminism) as the solution to poverty and crime.

Neither side is willing to sponsor mental health services that are anti-authoritarian and that do not depend on some form of behavior modification, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and other sedatives.

What would be a sane alternative approach to the family? How about a more realistic approach to all the causes of inter-family conflict? How about a rehabilitation of Freud’s basic ideas?

How about teaching parenting and the managing of sex and aggression in middle schools, where puberty begins the long process of separating from the family of origin and forging ties with peers that are as problematic as ties with parents? How about insurance companies paying for family therapy, instead of focusing solely upon the individual snatched from the primary institution that contributes to her or his agitation/depression? How about enlarging that analysis, moving from the family to ever larger entities that exacerbate mental illness through psychological warfare and the urge to “compromise”, to conform to crazy-making policies, or to be silent?

Kim Novak Of Human Bondage

Kim Novak Of Human Bondage

Or, as Ishmael queried to the reader of Moby-Dick, after reporting his acquiescence to a cruel Captain, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” [No disrespect meant to the unique awfulness of chattel slavery before the American Civil War.] For a preceding blog that also addresses family issues, particularly “undoing” the onslaught of trauma see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/16/gun-control-laws-quick-fixes-undoing/.)

October 27, 2012

Melville, Orwell, Doublethink

 This is my second major Orwell blog: see https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/ for the first one.

During my recent forays into the changing interpretations of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), I was surprised to learn that Orwell had read passages from Herman Melville’s White-Jacket (1850) while broadcasting on the BBC during the early years of WW2. Specifically, he excerpted a gory description of a naval doctor performing an unnecessary and fatal amputation on a wounded U.S. sailor. Elsewhere in White-Jacket, HM had sharply and vividly written about “flogging through the fleet,” a practice that he abhorred, possibly because he had been caned as a child by his own father. Indeed, Roy Porter sent me an ad from a British newspaper offering White-Jacket as sadomasochistic porn. (On the dynamics of sadomasochism see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/21/managerial-psychiatry-jung-murray-and-sadomasochism-2/.)

Though at least one Orwell biographer (Jeffrey Meyers) has emphasized GO’s masochism, I have not found a source yet that relates where the conception of Doublethink originated. Did Orwell know about “cognitive dissonance” from experience, or reading, or had he read Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), where Melville not only describes his mother’s frequent mixed messages, but invents “Plinlimmon’s Pamphlet” that praises “virtuous expediency” as the best morality attainable on this deceptive earth. My book on the Melville Revival (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival)  is nearly entirely devoted to this theme of the double bind/cognitive dissonance/virtuous expediency, all of which signify what Orwell chose to call Doublethink.

Here are the double binds that I suggest were made apparent in Melville’s novels, and then may have driven his academic revivers in the 20th century into all manner of psychogenic symptoms and illnesses. (It is my contention that Melville readers who wished to advance in academe had to suppress the evidence before them in order to please the reigning ideology in the universities that employed them, so many derided Melville/Ahab as crazy, while defending Plinlimmon’s sensible philosophy, that they attributed to their “moderate” Melville/Ishmael .) But first take Doublethink in Pierre.

  1. There is no conflict between “truth” and Order. Mary Glendinning, Pierre’s mother in the novel, wants her son “just emerging from his teens” to grow into a manly individual, but not such an individual that he disobeys her choice  in choosing his future wife, who will also be perfectly obedient to her wishes.
  2. Pierre is expected to revere his dear perfect (Christian) father, but he must not be so good a Christian as to rescue from near-beggary his “natural” half-sister Isabel.
  3. Pierre reads the double bind, jilts his mother-chosen fiancée, runs off with Isabel, and mother dies of insanity. This book will not end well. (See Pierre’s scolding mother in this hard to find set of illustrations by Maurice Sendak, for a truncated edition of Pierre. https://yankeedoodlesoc.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/pierre3.jpg.)

In the much quoted Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick, the abolitionist preacher speaks of snatching the truth even if it lies hidden under the skirts of judges and Senators. It is unclear here whether “truth” signifies the truth of Christ, or of the truth as defined by lawyers (or today, scientists). But it is a fact that during Captain Ahab’s speech on “the quarter-deck”, he declares that “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Since Ahab is widely described as a blasphemer, I suspect that it is empirical truth that the relatively powerless see, and which is denied by their superiors, that Melville meant to call out. Which links him now to Orwell’s famous “dystopia.”

For Winston Smith works in “the Ministry of Truth” where he rewrites history to suit the propaganda requirements of Big Brother and the Inner Party. Recall Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), where he denounces journalists for taking the Soviet line that all anarchists and Trotskyists were in league with Franco’s fascists. John Dos Passos, in Century’s Ebb, remembered Orwell as an individualist striking out at those man-made institutions that forced him to lie for the sake of Order. Compare Dos’s elevation of Orwell as truth-seeker to the trendier line that Orwell, like Melville, was a premature anti-imperialist, and for that alone we honor his life and work.

[Added 11-10-12 Dos quote: )“If one thinks of the artist as…an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped the patron and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat…. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and to the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilisation perishes. I have not yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.” (George Orwell, in TRIBUNE, 1944). Quoted by Arthur M. Eckstein, “George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on Capitalism,” The Revised Orwell, ed. Jonathan Rose (Michigan State UP, 1992), p.204.

Another double bind that is especially relevant today:  There is no conflict between national identity and international identity. Hence, the United Nations is our best bet to avoid wars of the catastrophic magnitude of the world wars of the 20th century, or to halt “voter suppression” on November 6, 2012. Such are the psychic requirements of political correctness, the term itself an example of Doublethink, for facts (correctness) are non-partisan. Melville’s takedown of “virtuous expediency” is more to the point.

For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/10/14/reality-and-the-left/. For “political correctness” as decorum, an idea passed out by liberal elites, see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/, especially the suggestion by Christopher Edley, whose career has been remarkable.

August 14, 2012

An inside Melville joke

Clare as Isabel with Paul Metcalf’s fake guitar

The first time I visited Herman Melville’s great-grandson, the poet Paul Metalf and his wife Nancy, was probably 1987. He posed me with a guitar that he had made himself as a sly reference to “Isabel”, the dark lady of Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), wherein “Isabel” has a mysterious guitar whose wild melodies inspire “Pierre” the hero (or antihero) of Melville’s “crazy” novel. In a nod to literary cubism, I combined two photographs and here you have me, Isabel curls and all. Paul later made a book out of our correspondence entitled Enter Isabel: The Herman Melville Correspondence of Clare Spark and Paul Metcalf (U of New Mexico P, 1990). One UCLA professor insisted that Paul Metcalf must have invented me out of thin air. What can I add except to say that Paul labored in his vegetable garden daily, and made the Adirondack chairs in which I am seated by himself. Both he and his late wife Nancy were descended from Roger Williams of New England, and Paul was a poet who loved collage, and did his own kind of history. I miss these dear faithful friends more than I can say.


November 12, 2011

The Woman Question in Saul Bellow’s Herzog

Saul Bellow

It is easy to see why Saul Bellow, the son of Jewish Russian émigrés who were as declassed as many French aristocrats during the French Revolution, would be attracted to Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), for Melville not only paraded his gallery of intriguing grotesques in that novel (written in the same Berkshires that are the setting for the final passages of Herzog) ; HM declared his unambiguous opposition to the money-mad materialist civilization that had brought his own family down.*

And Melville could be as misogynistic (see his description of the promethean “Goneril” in CM) as Moses Herzog, the chief character and semi-narrator of a novel that is considered to be one of the 100 most important books ever written.  I have not surveyed the literary criticism of Bellow’s novel, but have noted that his novels are said to be frankly barely disguised autobiography, and that Sam Tanenhaus, for one, has criticized Bellow for his unflattering portraits of ex-wives in that novel. What is striking to me, however, is the venom that is directed toward the second wife, “Madeleine”— a stunningly beautiful but hyper-critical, unfaithful woman who, like Melville’s own mother after the publication of Pierre, believes him to be mad and wants him to be institutionalized.  “Madeleine” is an intellectual and a graduate student in Russian literature and philosophy. Her real life counterpart was the second of five wives, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, perhaps a woman who could challenge him in the field said to be influential in his own development: the Russian 19th century novel.

In Bellow’s novel, lodged in the Berkshires (near Pittsfield, Melville’s home for his most productive years, called Arrowhead)  in a country home that Herzog has improved with his own hands, he comes to a belief that he is not crazy, and ceases writing messages to persons living and dead, never sent, but sprinkled throughout the tale.

One of these unsent messages is to his discarded psychiatrist “Edvig”: “You gave me good value for my money when you explained that neuroses might be graded by the inability to tolerate ambiguous situations.  I have just read a certain verdict in Madeleine’s eyes, “For cowards, Not-being!” Her disorder is super-clarity. Allow me modestly to claim that I am much better now at ambiguities. I think I can say, however, that I have been spared the chief ambiguity that afflicts intellectuals, and this is that civilized individuals hate and resent the civilization that has made their lives possible. What they love is an imaginary human situation invented by their own genius and which they believe is the only true and the only human reality. How odd! But the best treated, most favored and intelligent part of any society is often the most ungrateful. Ingratitude, however, is its social function. Now there’s an ambiguity for you!….” (p.304)

Is it any wonder that Herzog became a best-seller and marked the turning point in Bellow’s reputation? Not only has Bellow tossed overboard the hope of human amelioration as idiotically utopian, we are  supposed to despise Freudians ( because the latter rejected religion for a materialist, historical understanding of human suffering, and even proposed in The Future of an Illusion that a society tolerating unnecessary poverty did not deserve to persist?).  As for Melville and ambiguity, his much-ridiculed novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), limned the conflict between a complacent upper-class life versus one committed to the rescue of abandoned suffering humanity. His hero, the romantic Pierre, does not regret his decision to choose originality in form and content over conventional narratives like Typee, no matter whose ox is gored. The ambiguity lay in the possibly mixed motives in choosing the orphaned Dark Lady “Isabel” over his genteel fiancée, Lucy.  For Freudians, and for Melville in other works, ambiguity lay in separating out free will from determinism.  Is the “truth” we seek a straightforward matter, or is it clouded in subjective dispositions, selective amnesia, and self-interest? (For ambiguity in Melville see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

Clearly, “Madeleine” is guilty of “super-clarity.”  She thinks she can see through her husband, diagnose his disorder while cracked herself, and perhaps she is overconfident in her intellectual competence as compared to Herzog, who conveniently has rejected both Marx and Freud, at a time (1964) when the U.S. counter-culture had moved sharply into anti-materialist New Ageism and other forms of “spirituality”—perhaps the kind offered by Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, studied by Bellow at one time.

I have argued elsewhere on this website, that misogyny and antisemitism are linked, and that the key to their twinning is the Medusa/Gorgon stare of the modern mother, who, since the late 18th century and the rise of capitalism that elevated her as the bearer of morality,  first lays down the law for the child–perhaps in the case of this poetic author,  a  child who never severed the cord, for Bellow’s own mother had died when he was only seventeen years old. If my inferences are correct, it was no accident that Bellow named his doppelgänger Moses.

*See the Bellow bio on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Bellow. It is curious that Melville is not seen as a literary influence, especially given the specificity of Pittsfield, Mass. as the location where Herzog finds peace and stability ensconced in nature. However, Melville did not find peace anywhere, and as for nature, its deceptively benign, beckoning  exterior could conceal “the charnel house within.”

Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Bellow

October 1, 2011

Updated index to Melville blogs




https://clarespark.com/2009/09/03/advice-for-the-lovelorn-with-thoughts-on-hero-worship/ (Retitled Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty?)





















https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/ (Hobsbawm’s reading of Moby-Dick as great indictment of capitalism/imperialism.)




June 12, 2011

Call Me Isabel (a reflection on “lying”)

Illustrations by Maurice Sendak from a truncated edition of “PIerre”

From the chapter “The Journey and The Pamphlet” (Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities,Book XIV):

“[When a youth discovers that his father has been misrepresented as morally irreproachable, and is hence disillusioned and angry] an overpowering sense of the world’s downright positive falsity comes over him; the world seems to lie saturated and soaking with lies.” Properly instructed by philosophy, the youth will discard his romanticism, and then realize that “…A virtuous expediency…seems the highest desirable or attainable earthly excellence for the mass of men, and is the only earthly excellence that their Creator intended for them.”

During the research phase of my work on the politics of the interwar and postwar Melville Revival I discovered several juicy items. One factoid (that Melville was a brutal husband and father) was considered to be excellent red meat for a journal article by several editors, and indeed Andrew Delbanco (Columbia U. superstar) quoted my nugget in his Melville biography, without noting that it was bogus, and that I had demonstrated it to be bogus throughout my book.

Another fact (not a factoid) was the suppression of a family letter by key revivers strongly suggesting that the plot of Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) was taken from real life, and that Melville’s family had hidden the existence of a real-life natural sister roughly corresponding to the character Isabel (an archetypal Dark Lady, i.e., a rebel and emancipator) in the novel. Briefly, Pierre jilts the safely blonde and wealthy girl preferred by his mother, risks being disowned and ostracized, and runs away to the city to “gospelize the world anew” as a [Voltairean, Byronic, Promethean] figure. In short, Pierre is another Captain Ahab, a character who had been linked to Hitler in the approved Melville scholarship, and in my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006),  I show parallel passages in both novels linking the two characters as truth-seekers in the mode of John Milton speaking through Satan in Book IX of Paradise Lost.

When I offered to write journal articles about my findings (in the late 1980s), including the suppression of the family letter,  I aroused angry, even hysterical responses in editors. They wanted dirt on Herman Melville (he was crazy or violent), but not an accurate account of his family situation, one that made impossible demands to be both a good Christian and lover of truth, but not to disturb conservative notions of order. For these editors, like the officially sanctioned Melville scholars, were conforming to the profile of the moderate men that Melville had denounced in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/. These scholars were therefore advocates of “virtuous expediency” as “Plotinus Plinlimmon’s” pamphlet had advised. To say that they were merely ideological or incompetent is to excuse what was a blatant lie—the pretense that the family letter didn’t say what it said, or ignoring its existence altogether in order to maintain the Melville-as-Ishmael fiction. Or you can call the polite suppression of the family letter a noble lie, if you prefer, for “community cohesion” and “stability” trump the discovery of the truth every time. Melville scholars generally approve of “virtuous expediency” and don’t see it as a sin against the truth. As Dr. Henry A. Murray argued, the perfect father was needed as “the focus of veneration”. Murray also linked Melville, the romantic artist, to Hitler in a confidential report to FDR.

I further discovered that in one College Board exam constructed by Terence Martin, it was correct to state that Ahab was a terrorist, while Ishmael was an advocate for interdependence–the antithesis of Ahab.  Does this distortion of the text rise to the ignominious accusation of lying, or is it merely ideological? When a student’s future is guaranteed by lying, what does it say about our culture and the path to success? The world is indeed, soaked in lies. Call me Isabel. If Anthony Weiner is to be punished, let us all take a personal inventory as we go about our business, deferring to others for opportunistic purposes.

Clearly, judging by the book sales of such as Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter, demonization of the Democratic opponents, like the world-wide demonization of Captain Ahab/Melville  is rewarded; similarly left-wing authors often return the favor, hence our polarized polity. Did Jonah Goldberg, like Noam Chomsky before him, lie about the major claim of Walter Lippmann’s important book Public Opinion, in order to buttress Goldberg’s populist agenda in opposing “the nanny state”? I say that he did. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) Has this kind of wicked distortion anything to do with the witch hunt being mounted against Anthony Weiner? I thought it did, and criticized these right-wing publicists of hypocrisy. For this I was reprimanded by another scholar, who, in passing, denied that anyone could claim “absolute objectivity” as a historian.

Although I am generally very cautious about definitive answers to controversial questions,  I have no problem claiming absolute objectivity in declaring that many of Herman Melville’s most revered biographers withheld documents that would have changed their readings of his texts (not just the family letter about an Isabel, but other weighty letters that countered the rumor that he was a violent father and husband). In doing so, they betrayed the ideals of professional scholarship. I feel the same in authoritatively stating that Melville was ambivalent and a waverer, as many another writer has been– while in the dangerous position of endangering his economic survival by flouting the prejudices of his relatives or patrons (see the life of Goethe for another waverer, compare for instance the two Wilhelm Meister novels). The same goes for scholars who fail to defy their dissertation directors or colleagues (when warranted)  in order to get a job. If conforming to what is known to be timid scholarship is not lying, then I don’t know what is. (For more on this theme, see the following blog: https://clarespark.com/2011/06/13/weinergate-papa-freud-and-the-imperfect-father/.)

March 30, 2011

Eric Foner’s Christianized Lincoln

Columbia U. Professor Eric Foner

Eric Foner’s recent history book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery ((N.Y.: Norton, 2010) has received the coveted Bancroft Prize. In this blog, I deploy a critical tool used by postmodernists, but with a different purpose. According to the “pomos,” all history writing necessarily falls into one literary genre or another, and the “master narratives” used in the writing of the history of the West are suspect (because the Pomos reject Progress and the [protofascist ]Enlightenment). Much as I deplore the cultural relativism and epistemological skepticism of the pomos, I found such an analytic approach useful in identifying trends in Melville criticism, especially biography. Early revivers of Melville’s reputation followed the Narcissus/Icarus myth. “Ahab”(i.e., Melville) over-reached in the writing of Moby-Dick, so crashed and drowned in the crazy book that followed—Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Drowned, he was done for and lost his reading public. But a competing myth or narrative followed that one (and it is deployed by Foner in his Lincoln study): the conversion narrative as exemplified in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  In this rendition, Melville, sobered up by the blood bath or quagmire of the American Civil War, recovers to write Clarel: a poem and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land–his very long “Christian” poem (the narrator is devout, but not the title character) and later his supposedly Christianity-infused “Billy Budd,” with Billy blessing the State that is killing him. Of course, all Melville scholarship is controversial, and Melville never followed the neat and consoling mythic narratives that are used to reconcile the deep ambivalence he felt about most issues that roiled the 19th century. Real lives, unlike myths, are messy.

Eric Foner’s new book follows the conversion narrative: Lincoln begins as a conventional white racist, but is pushed by events and the pressures of Radical Republicans away from his earlier desire for colonization of American blacks to Africa, and toward redemption. Like Foner’s massive book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, Foner’s latest history makes Reconstruction utterly unfinished. But in this one he more overtly praises growing state power to remedy injustice, and pulls the reader along as Lincoln “grows” even in his religious references and belief in a God that intervenes in the affairs of humans. Foner’s narrative, dry and boring as most of it is, made me weep by the time I got to the end. Hence, the reader is left responsible to remedy the deficiencies of Andrew Johnson’s awful administration and everything that follows. Foner, a populist-progressive (as far as I can tell), mentions Karl Marx only once, to buttress the notion that the real American Revolution followed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Charles Sumner is lauded throughout because he, like the other Radical Republicans, pushes Lincoln in the correct direction. This is the most positive evaluation of Sumner that I have seen since the 19th century, when he was the object of adulation in New England among the abolitionists and thousands of blacks as well. However, in his earlier book on Reconstruction(1988), Foner misreported that Sumner opposed the 8 hour day for workers (p. 481), which was not true, for Sumner came around and voted for the eight-hour day as a result of his friendship with Ira Steward. Another source reported that Sumner thought that labor was overworked and needed the time for education and leisure. (See also a sarcastic reference to Sumner, p.504, footnoting David Herbert Donald’s mostly hostile biography of [the crypto-Jew] Sumner.) So I take this deviation from the usual anti-Sumner line to be opportunistic. (In the writings of others, especially the cultural historians, Sumner is an extremist, another monomaniacal, war-instigating Captain Ahab.) We the readers are supposed to follow the lead of the Radical Republicans into the Promised Land of racial equality, whatever that means. (For a related blog noting the triumph of communist-inflected black nationalism see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/01/petit-bourgeois-radicalism-and-obama/.)

February 25, 2011

The King’s Speech flap

The Royal Family

[This blog is for Christopher Hitchens:]  Some heated debates have erupted on my Facebook page over the controversy regarding the movie, The King’s Speech. At stake is what sources the average person relies upon to get a sense of what happened in the past. In the case of this much-Oscar-nominated movie, the stakes are very high, for nothing less than the record of the European aristocracy in either appeasing or opposing the rise of Hitler and the expansion of the Third Reich is on the table.

As the comments proliferated, I realized that very few people are aware that history can be, but should not be, an instrument for advocacy in partisan squabbles. We are all at the mercy of our primary source materials, and many of the most crucial records, for obvious reasons, are sequestered far away from the prying eyes of the public (and even when they are released or leaked, we must reckon with the subjectivity of the author). This theme of primary source-aversion is so huge in the story of the Western countries painful slog toward the open society that William Godwin wrote Caleb Williams (1794) about the dire consequences of opening the master’s trunk to ferret out his secrets (as I recall it was title to the land, but correct me). Nathaniel Hawthorne read that book when he was sixteen, and I wonder if his well-known conservatism was fortified out of fear, for neither master nor man turned out well in Godwin’s cautionary tale.  [Read the book, for it is a landmark in English literature and much more complex and deep than my erroneous citation. Melville bought it during his trip to England in 1849, and it had to have influenced Moby-Dick and Pierre.]

Similarly, Captain Ahab’s harpoon was hurled at Leviathan to uncover its secrets, a theme that is carried out in Melville’s subsequent novel, Pierre.  One reason my book on the Melville revival was so long (730 pages, including about 145 pages of endnotes) was that I wanted the reader to look at as much of the evidence I had found as possible, so s/he could determine for herself whether I had mischaracterized the sources or not. This is not the usual practice among academics in the humanities, for it is considered bad form to inflict long quotes on the reader, and a sign that the historian can’t summarize aptly. In the case of Hunting Captain Ahab, I was aware long before publication that fellow academics would think I was on some monomaniacal quest for revenge in stating flat out that almost all the Melville scholarship was either wrong or seriously flawed.

To conclude these brief remarks, we are either up to the challenge of reading and writing history or not.  We cannot sacrifice primary sources for the sake of family or partisan unity. So far on the world wide web, some leftists and liberals have been skeptical about George VI and his possible role as appeaser in the late 1930s, while conservatives have tended to defend the royal family, in one case citing the official biography of George VI as told by John Wheeler-Bennett.  One thing I do know: Hollywood film has tended to play to its audience: movies were populist in the 1930s and remained so during the next period of upheaval—from the 1960s on. Populists are not without their own heroes, nor are they immune from ancestor worship. As for me, I suspect everyone, as a good hunter after hunters is compelled to do.

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