The Clare Spark Blog

April 24, 2012

The subtle racism of Edna Ferber and Oscar Hammerstein II

1929 poster for Showboat film

(This blog follows https://clarespark.com/2010/08/22/south-pacific-and-liberal-guilt/.)  Liberals like to think of themselves as anti-racists, and struggle valiantly to distinguish themselves from blood and soil (Blut und Boden) Nazis, the hereditarian racists par excellence. But there are more subtle, more insidious forms of racism, because they masquerade as antiracism, for instance in one kind of “environmentalist” logic or in primitivism/exoticism. (For the racism inherent in “multiculturalism” see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multiculturalism-blogs/. Briefly, it is believed that there are no universal ethics or universal facts, for diverse languages and cultures create reality, and no one culture is better than another, nor is it legible to “the Other.” For the genealogy of “the Other” see https://clarespark.com/2014/09/08/why-progressive-social-psychologists-make-us-crazy/.)

In this latter “environmentalist” variety, it is imagined that different climates and material conditions literally molded their diverse populations. These non-whites, upon discovery, exert a fascination for travelers and other fantasists, for the primitives are associated with the inexhaustible bosom of mother Earth, or with the release of those “spiritual” or erotic (or even aggressive) instincts supposedly repressed by such as the hard-driving, uptight money-maddened Hebraic Puritans of cold and rocky New England and their Yankee brethren in Philadelphia and New York. Different environments, it was thought even by such “advanced” anthropologists such as Franz Boas, produced different skull formations, and presumably differing human types. (For the reception of Boas into progressive race pedagogy, see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/, especially the enthused melding of Boas with 18th century German Romantics of the Aufklärung by Bostonian educator J. Mace Andress, 1916.)

Almost everyone who writes about American musical theater credits Oscar Hammerstein II for the precocious antiracism of the musical Showboat, (1926), followed by several film versions, the most famous one released in 1927. He is also the acclaimed lyricist of the stage musical South Pacific (1949), then translated into film in 1958, with his lyric for “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” covered by every liberal singer imaginable, eager to distance themselves from nativist yahoo Republicans.

I consulted Paul Osborn’s “Final script” for the 1958 movie, dated June 10, 1957, to see if the movie version, like the play (and unlike Michener’s original Tales of the South Pacific) had Lieutenant Joe Cable renounce his conventional life in Philadelphia for the sexual charms of Liat, the younger than springtime daughter of Bloody Mary. The script makes it clear that the song itself has converted Cable away from “My Girl Back Home” (a song dropped from the original stage play). What follows are my notes from the movie script:

First Cable remembers what he has left behind:

(p.103)”My Girl Back Home”

“My girl back home/ I’d almost forgot/A blue eyed kid/ I liked her a lot/ We got engaged/Both families were glad/ And I was told/By my uncle and Dad/That if I was clever and able/ They’d make me a part/ Of a partnership/Cable, Cable, and Cable.

How far away/Philadelphia P.A./Princeton, N.J./How far are they/From coconut palms/And banyan trees/And coral sands/ And/ Tonkinese”

p.106 Following the singing of “You’ve Got To be Carefully Taught,” there are “Directions: speaking, going close to Emile, his voice filled with the emotion of discovery and firm in a new determination.” Cable speaks: “Yes, sir, if I get out of this thing alive, I’m not going back there! I’m coming here. All I care about is right here.”

Significantly, the reference to Liat (in “My Girl Back Home”) follows references to the physical environment of a South Pacific island, and even then she is not individuated with a name, but collapsed into her race, the Tonkinese (now known as Vietnamese).

Return now to Showboat, the best-selling 1926 novel of Edna Ferber. I had assumed that the theme of miscegenation, the very core of white supremacist angst, would be part of Ferber’s psychological attractions. But no. It is true that Julie, the mulatto played by Helen Morgan in the film version, is a major character who sings such standards as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” and “Bill”, but in Ferber’s novel, Ferber’s Doppelgänger Magnolia, is attached to Julie as a projection of herself, a showboat actress and maternal figure with black hair, plain features, and a sallow complexion. (Ferber’s mother’s name was Julia).  As Julie and her blonde husband are driven out of Lemoyne (where she was born and known to be part Negro), (hysterical) Magnolia runs after her, and Ferber writes, “…And when they finally came together, the woman dropped on her knees in the dust of the road and gathered the weeping child to her and held her close, so that as  you saw them sharply outlined against the sunset the black of the woman’s dress and the white of the child’s frock were as one.” (p.153)

But more, Magnolia’s  hyper-Puritan business-like, “frigid” and “fanatical” killjoy mother, Parthia Ann Hawks, is the antitype to the spirituality of Jo and Queenie, the major Negro characters in the book. Magnolia hovers about them as a refuge from the hypocritical Mother, a strict Calvinist, secretly thrilled by wickedness. Queenie feeds Magnolia’s body, while Jo feeds her soul. “…Jo, the charming and shiftless, would be singing for her one of the Negro plantation songs, wistful with longing and pain; the folk songs of a wronged race, later to come into a blaze of popularity as spirituals.” Magnolia asks Jo to play “I Got Shoes” and Ferber even includes the score of the song, followed by “The longing of a footsore, ragged, driven race expressed in the tragically childlike terms of shoes, white robes, wings, and the wise and simple insight into hypocrisy: “Everybody’s talkin ‘bout Heav’n ain’t goin’ there….” She then asks for “Go Down Moses.” “She liked this one—at once the most majestic and supplicating of all the Negro folk songs—because it always made her cry a little. Sometimes Queenie, busy at the stove or the kitchen table, joined in with her high rich camp-meeting voice. Jo’s voice was a reedy tenor, but soft and husky with the indescribable Negro vocal quality. …purple velvet muffling a flute(120-122).” Later, Magnolia will sing these and other spirituals to her daughter Kim, when she is ill, imitating the “soft husky Negro voice. (291)”

Edna Ferber, an admirer of FDR during the Depression, should be grouped together with regionalist artists and poets of her time, reaching out to the wretched of the earth, to “the common man,”  not to the militant industrial working class or their intellectual allies in the Red Decade. Here is a passage from Showboat that she even quotes in her first autobiography A Peculiar Treasure (1939). She is describing the appeal of the showboats to the denizens of the Mississippi shores, especially those of the South: “They forgot the cotton fields, the wheatfields, the cornfields. They forgot the coal mines, the potato patch, the stable, the barn, the shed. They forgot the pitiless blaze of the noonday sun; the bitter marrow-numbing chill of winter; the blistered skin; the frozen road, wind, snow, rain, flood. The women forgot for an hour their washtubs, their kitchen stoves, childbirth pains, drudgery, worry, disappointment. Here were blood, lust, love, passion. Here were warmth, enchantment, laughter, music. It was Anodyne. It was Lethe. It was Escape. It was the Theatre.” (104-105)

Ferber was a great fan of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. (On Twain and disenchantment see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/31/the-numbers-game/.) But there was even more to Ferber’s primitivism that links her to Hammerstein’s fairy tales. Writing of the audience for the showboat’s plays and songs, “They made a weird spectacle of the commonplace. The whites of the Negroe’s eyes gleamed whiter. The lights turned their cheeks to copper and bronze and polished ebony. The swarthy coal miners and their shawled and sallow wives, the farmers of the corn and wheat lands, the backwoods poor whites, the cotton pickers of Tennessee, Lousiana, Mississippi, the small-town merchants, the shambling loafers, the lovers two by two were magically transformed into witches, giants, princesses, crones, gnomes, Nubians, genii. (102-103)”  For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/21/wilsonian-internationalism-as-our-town/, and https://clarespark.com/2012/04/12/the-donkey-serenade-and-buffetts-rule/.

For shocking materials on Ferber’s family relations and her similarly surprising views on such questions as the rising tide of color (reminiscent of Lothrop Stoddard) or the archaic cultures of American Indians, see her great-niece’s biography: Julie Goldsmith Gilbert, Ferber: A Biography (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978). Usually, descendants guard private papers of controversial ancestors assiduously. In this case, Gilbert indicts, by extension, an entire class of actors, authors, playwrights, and movie producers revered today by most liberals and Democrats. They were the fabulous wits I was trained to adore growing up. But most interestingly, the transformations from Ferber’s novels to mass media or theater seemed to bother her not in the least, even though her social criticism was attenuated in favor of Romance, for instance in the film version of her novel Giant. I thank John Podhoretz for telling me about the  Gilbert book. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/05/10/androgyny-with-an-aside-on-edna-ferber/.)

 

February 13, 2012

Whitney’s spectacular demise

Whitney with snakylocks

I have written many blogs complaining about primitivism, racism, and the decline of American civilization. (see https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/.) I am so disturbed by the mindless media frenzy following Whitney Houston’s not-so-sudden death on Feb.11, 2012, that I am incapable of more than an outline.

1. The main lesson for everyone: don’t mix alcohol with xanax or other sedatives. If you need anti-anxiety drugs, beware of addiction and read the warning label.

2. Her deterioration became a spectacle; where were her friends and physicians?

3. The Grammies celebrate a drug culture common to the music industry and its fans; the latest casualties appear to have died from mixing booze with anti-anxiety drugs. Before that, cocaine was understood to be factored into the cost of hip pop music record production.

4. (On The Grammies) From 1960s-70s light shows to the current sports-inflected pop culture world, there is barely a gap. Only the technology, athleticism, and virtuosity have advanced. The audience remains high and hypnotized by flashing lights and gaudy colors and glitter, including the clothes worn by black and brown performers of both sexes. Barbaric ornament is in, republican simplicity is out and associated with Victorian battle-axes who marched for abolition, then temperance, then urban uplift of fallen women.

5. With respect to culture, the South won the Civil War and later these organic conservatives may  have stopped the civil rights movement cold by its condemnation of [New England] “puritanism,” supposedly the force behind the mechanized slaughter and the materialistic, divisive culture that followed the conflict. The mystical white Left and counter-culture helped out by separating black culture from an integrated American history. They also shook their booties (sp?) and went primitive. 19th century blackface minstrel shows, once considered racist, are now celebrated by some folklorists as populist and satirical.

6. The plundering, vicious, modernizing “North” of the 1860s, in some cases, may return as monsters and vampires in popular films and comics of today.* Universities call for conferences on this mysterious phenomenon, while ignoring the growing public expression of antisemitism. Some cool black entrepreneurs (starting with Spike Lee?) blame Jewish money managers for stealing the money earned by superstars in the music industry.  Part of the Southern patrician legacy is responsible for this complaint, for New England=fanatical abolitionist=puritan killjoy=Sherman’s march through Georgia=predatory Yankee- Jewish commerce/filthy lucre, now famously controlling all of mass media and destroying all “communities.”

7. Whitney Houston will always be good because she sang the national anthem better than anybody, also (Dolly Parton’s) “I Will Always Love You,” attaching unconditional love to objects of dubious worth to herself, i.e. “bad boy” Bobby Brown and her entourage. The blending of the demonic with art-making is an old Romantic tic that should be recognized and condemned.  See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/. The same with sadomasochism, no longer a symptom to be identified and treated, or, more judgmentally, as a perversion, but an acceptable, even fashionable form of sexuality. Even a cursory examination of this culture will find a fountain of misogyny and hatred of moral mothers–the mothers who replaced male authority in the teaching of religion and other “civilizing” functions after patriarchs left the household for work in offices, factories, etc.

8. I am horrified by those doctors and hangers-on who not only failed to help Whitney Houston, but by those in the tabloids who have profited from her spectacular public deterioration. Equally, I am disappointed by those activists who oppose public health measures or the teaching of human biology/hygiene at the earliest possible age in our schools.

9. [Added 2-14-12] I have not mentioned the cost of celebrity; the loss of  privacy; the pressure to perform in order to support others; the internal pressure not to lose skill and/or fire; the fear of aging; performance anxiety. This goes for opera singers and all public performers who impersonate others. Who was Whitney Houston impersonating? What was her relationship with her singer mother? Did she adhere to the myth of the tragic mulatto? How did she respond to her own motherhood?  Journalists invested in the reproduction of “celebrity” will not ask these very obvious questions, for the answers would shorten the distance between audience and performer, and would raise the troubling issue of race and stardom. [Added 2-17-12: I wrote this blog a week ago. I saw the funeral service. Nowhere in all the media coverage has there been the mention of a strong, nurturing father in her family of origin. Presumably Clive Davis tried to fill that function, but why the silence about her biological father, John Russell Houston, Jr. (d. 2003)? Thanks to my daughter Jennifer Loeb Chocron for pointing this out to me.]

*Monsters and vampires are not limited to the rampaging “North”, but may represent “the return of the repressed,” i.e., images of forbidden rage against authoritarian, abusive/negligent parents or other illegitimate authority.

Recommended reading. Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (N.Y.: Knopf, 1973). This pathbreaking book in American Studies faulted most American authors as mostly  patricians unable to share in the experience of ordinary soldiers, and who also ignored the centrality of slaves and free blacks in their fiction and poetry.  Those who did best were Melville, Whitman, De Forest, Bierce, Mark Twain, and Faulkner. Highly readable and beautifully written.

February 9, 2012

“Glee” goes La Raza or “Duende”

 

Ricky Martin

(For  related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/21/the-hispanic-vote/and https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.)

On February 7, 2012, the hit show Glee buttressed the cultural nationalist view of those Latino irredentists who want to take back the Southwest, overwhelm Anglo-American culture, and generally advance what could be described as “brown supremacy” as opposed to competing ideologies in America. Somehow the episode titled “The Spanish Teacher” with guest star Ricky Martin slipped into some heavy propaganda without being noticed by the Wikipedia detailed account of the episode. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Spanish_Teacher.) This blog fills in what the Wiki summary glaringly omitted.

The hunky pop star Ricky Martin (whose guerro appearance bears no resemblance to, say the mestizo construction workers in my neighborhood) predicts that in a few decades, Spanish will be the dominant language in America. [Add to the language factor, the conception of “duende” that Lorca defined as essential to Spanish culture: “According to Christopher Maurer, editor of “In Search of Duende”, at least four elements can be isolated in Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that “ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head”; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art. The duende is seen, in Lorca’s lecture, as an alternative to style, to mere virtuosity….” From Wikipedia definition of “duende.” The word is repeated many times during the first dance and song number as the quality that non-Hispanics lack. I have a new insight into Ernest Hemingway: thank you Wikipedia.]

Moreover, by the end of the episode, duende-deprived Will Schuester (played by Broadway star Matthew Morrison), formerly the school’s Spanish teacher, hands over his job to the Ricky Martin character (formerly a teacher in night school), for [gringo] Will not only is less competent to teach Spanish, he lacks “authenticity.” The glowering Latina student “Santana” upbraids the abashed and guilty Will for pretending to participate in the culture of a [race] for which he lacks [roots]. This sacrifice perfectly reflects what black nationalists demand for their group: only someone with “African American” blood can transmit their cultural heritage and relate an accurate history to students in high schools and colleges. Such is the legacy of multiculturalism, embraced by the Democratic Party, and though devastating to the conception of the melting pot (see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/16/the-antiquated-melting-pot/), does appeal to the most authoritarian, racialist, and backward tendencies in post-1960s social movements. [Added later: I had forgotten a detail: the Ricky Martin character states that his grandparents(?) were illegal immigrants! This would not be an issue for irredentists, for were not great gobs of the USA stolen from Mexico? Maybe not Ohio, the locale of “Glee,” but you get the point.]

January 3, 2012

The Race Card

Sumner bio paperback cover art

This blog responds to the playing of “the race card” by such politicians as Eric Holder, Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson, plus a cast of thousands of militant black nationalists, along with academic allies who favor ethnic studies. Their separatism and taxonomy of “African-Americans” suggests not only an underlying loyalty to (racist) Pan-Africanism, but a fashionable version of US history as unmarked by moral and political outrage at the institution of slavery or horror at the failed struggle for Reconstruction after the supposed ending of the Civil War. At bottom, this blog suggests that the President’s continued popularity may be partly attributed to white liberal guilt (as suggested early on by Shelby Steele and others), and certainly not to powerful “liberal” blows against the racism that permeates our society, with some exceptions.

I will try to contrast two important books on race and class in the 19th century; one by the late David Montgomery, writing from the Left, and another by the late David Herbert Donald, writing from the moderate middle.  As I have shown in other blogs on the website, such success as the ex-slaves and their descendants have achieved in America is explained by the overt or subtextual racism of primitivism and  multiculturalism. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/.

I.    After having faulted upper-class antebellum and post-bellum Radical reformers (through 1868) for their obliviousness to structural class conflict, the late labor historian David Montgomery concluded that “the Radicals” (including Charles Sumner), nevertheless exerted a positive influence on American politics. In Beyond Equality, (1967) the book that established him as a leading historian, Montgomery ended with this paragraph:  “…though their moment in power was brief and their response to the dilemmas of that moment confused, the Radicals left America a legacy that was both rich and various. To Negroes they bequeathed the promise of equality, enshrined in the organic law of the land. To Liberals they imparted faith that an educated and propertied elite might shepherd the nation through the morass of democratic ignorance toward an increasingly prosperous, harmonious, and rational life. Upon the Sentimental Reformers, and through them, on the working classes, they bestowed the ideal of popular use of governmental machinery to promote the common good, and a conception of that good as something nobler than a larger gross national product. Henry Carey’s sense of revulsion toward the consecration of “selfishness and individualism as the prime feature of society,” and Thaddeus Stevens’s aspiration for a community ‘freed from every vestige of human oppression,’ jettisoned by a nation in frantic pursuit of wealth, were left in trust to its labor movement.”

(For David Montgomery’s views on his membership in the Communist Party see http://rhr.dukejournals.org/content/1980/23/37.full.pdf+html.)

II.   I have quoted from Montgomery’s first book, not because I sympathize with his Marxist analysis of the future of the labor movement, but because Montgomery’s positive view of the abolitionists and antislavery men (including Senator Charles Sumner, 1811-1874) stands in such sharp contrast with that of his Ivy League colleague David Herbert Donald, author of a much lauded two-volume biography of Sumner, that leaves out the labor question altogether, focusing rather on Sumner (a catalyst for Civil War) as a pain in the neck (perhaps with Jewish, Negro, or Indian blood), deserving of endless psychological analysis. But even more importantly, Donald sees the race problem as one of “prejudice,” without consideration of labor competition, in Ralph Bunche’s view, the lingering cause of white racism (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/) .

Here are some passages that illustrate my point:

David Herbert Donald

[From Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), footnote: pp.4-5:] “…Barry [1853] asserted that Sumner’s mother was ‘probably of Jewish descent’; this allegation led…Stearns [1905]…to identify ‘the Hebrew element in Sumner’s nature; the inflexibility of purpose, the absolute self-devotion, and even the prophetic forecast.’ Such a theory of inherited racial traits is, of course, highly unscientific. But, in any case, the Jewish strain in Sumner’s ancestry is dubious. At no point in his career, when virtually every other possible weapon was used against him, were anti-Semitic charges raised.” In the text on p. 5, Donald reports that “Boston maiden aunts speculated—without any evidence whatever—that the mysterious [Esther Holmes, Sumner’s paternal grandmother, never married to Major Sumner] had been ‘partly of Negro or Indian blood.’” But then, Donald hints that there may be something to these speculations seeking to account for Sumner’s passion for Negro human rights: “Prudently the new senator preferred to draw the veil over the whole subject of his genealogy (referring to CS’s autobiography): “It seems to me better to leave it all unsaid.”

In Charles  Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970), Donald takes a slightly more positive view of his subject, but no sooner does he declare Sumner’s belief in the brotherhood of humanity, than he finds a quote that attributes distinct racial qualities to Negroes (though this typical 19th century view of national or racial character never affects Sumner’s view of such crucial matters as freeing the slaves immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter, or endowing the freedmen with some of the land that they had worked, plus a full panoply of civil rights, including desegregated quality education, male suffrage, the right to testify in trials, desegregated public space, etc.

[Donald, V.2, p. 422, referring to Sumner’s anti-segregation speech “The Question of Caste”:]  “Invoking the new prestige of evolutionary science, he declared that ethnology and anthropology proved the ‘overruling Unity’ among the races of man, ‘by which they are constituted one and the same cosmopolitan species, endowed with speech, reason, conscience, and the hope of immortality, knitting all together in a common Humanity.’… [The Switch:] When the bars of caste were lifted, the Negroes would exhibit their basic racial traits of ‘simplicity, amenity, good-nature, generousity, fidelity,’ and these, when added to the ‘more precocious and harder’ characteristics of white Americans, would result in a civilization where ‘men will not only know and do, but they will feel also.”….

Near the end of Vol. 2, Donald reveals his affinity with Gunnar Myrdal, the white liberal foundations who funded and controlled the production of An American Dilemma (1944), and other cultural historians who hoped that reduction of “prejudice” and interracial understanding (or the constant reiteration of “white guilt”) will alleviate every kind of racism, through a change of heart:

[Donald, p. 533, referring to Sumner’s proposed civil rights bill:] “The subordination of the Negroes was less a matter of economics than of prejudice, deep-seated and ineradicable so long as black men legally were marked as belonging to an inferior caste. Only by securing equal rights to all citizens could the United States live up to its promise and become a land where even-handed justice ruled.”

This rejection of economic considerations (e.g. labor competition) is precisely what Myrdal’s associate Ralph Bunche or his mentor Abram L. Harris, were repudiating in the late 1930s.

What to take away from this dip into the conflicted mind of the late David Herbert Donald, a Mississippian with a Vermont ancestor who fought for the Union? How did he climb the academic ladder to become one of the most honored historians in the field? Why should we pay attention to his Sumner obsession?

I have two primary reasons for writing this blog:

  1. Having reread the two-volume Donald  bio of Sumner, I am more convinced than ever that Melville modeled his character Captain Ahab after Sumner. Just as “Ahab” was a “fighting Quaker”,  Sumner’s first scandalous public oration– on the Fourth of July 1845, in Faneuil Hall, Boston, to an elite assemblage that included military brass sitting in the first row—denounced all wars and pledged his life to peace.  The “fighting Quaker” moniker, plus the compassion that Ahab feels for the black boy Pip, going so far as to take “crazy” Pip into his cabin and promising never to abandon him, clinches the deal for me. For Sumner’s writing completed as Melville was writing Moby-Dick see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/. Or see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.

2. The notion that a career such as Sumner’s, passionately averse to slavery, that then fights for reconstruction of an American post-Civil War Union, could be the sign of a mental disorder or even tainted blood, is so bizarre as to be a sign of mental  incompetence and perhaps outright hostility in Sumner’s biographer. It was noted in one obituary (the New York Times) that Volumes one and two of  Donald’s major work were different in tone, owing to the growing civil rights movement. Clearly, that writer did not read the new, improved model with sufficient care.  Donald never relinquishes his characterization of a foppish, somewhat gay, anti-social, supremely arrogant and Negro-fixated Charles Sumner. His complexion may have been olive-tinted in Volume 1, but he goes out in Vol. 2 with “So White a Soul” (referring to Emerson’s characterization of Sumner’s moral  purity, but with a suggestion of underlying racism).

TO BE CONTINUED.

October 24, 2011

Turning points in the ascent/decline of the West

Victor Davis Hanson and George W. Bush

[Added 12-14-11: David P. Goldman (“Spengler”) says that modernity started with Mt. Sinai and Moses. He emphasized the personal relationship with the Jewish God–a God with whom one could argue because [Yahweh] was not perfect. I had not thought of this before, but it explains why Melville was often read as  Jew by Christians, for his “quarrel with God” especially as Captain Ahab.]

[Added July 2, 2013: Read this first: https://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/.]

Victor Davis Hanson has written an essay for Pajamas Media, 10-24-11 “Rage On—and on and on.” His subject is the PC college education the Occupy Wall Street movement has received, contrasting theirs with his own classical education at Santa Cruz in the 1970s. Dr. Hanson writes, “Politicking was rare even in the 1970s. Well over thirty years ago, I took some 30 courses in Greek and Latin language and literature at UC Santa Cruz, and another 12 PhD seminars at Stanford — all from whom in retrospect I would imagine were mostly hard left. But who knew? Not once in eight years of undergraduate or graduate education did a liberal professor go off topic to rant or, indeed, to mix politics with history or literature or language. There were no points given for politically correct answers. No sermonizing poured forth from the rostrum.”

There is some support for his position. See the photo illustrating a demonstration at Stanford University, in the early 1980s, when I clipped it from the New York Times: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/.

What Dr. Hanson does not notice is that the 1960s-70s antiwar movement drove many of the protesters into graduate school (for some, avoiding the draft), and it took some time for them to get their doctorates. After that, a buddy system insured that new hires would be agreeable to the “negative critique” (as the Frankfurt School advised) of U.S. and even all of Western history, especially the Enlightenment. Though such critical theorists as Herbert Marcuse complained about “repressive tolerance” (see https://clarespark.com/2013/07/04/independence-and-the-marketplace-of-ideas/), while others in his clique blamed mass culture for the rise of Hitler, their German Idealist epistemology  (i.e., radical subjectivism) would be useful to the Harvard liberals and their allies who promoted a modified multicultural welfare state that would absorb dissent from below in the new “inclusiveness.” That plus an aggressive recruitment of minorities in the more elite universities to pacify 1960s urban riots led to an all-out assault upon “whiteness” and the popularity of “interdisciplinary” i.e., cultural anthropology courses, that came to encompass the humanities, wiping out universalist ethics in the name of cultural relativism. Radical subjectivism was in, American exceptionalism (with its deplorable protofascist “mass culture”) was out.

At the same time, there was an older generation of professors ready to grant the New Leftists tenure, for the anti-imperialist, antiwar, anti-American tradition had multiple adherents, some of them Stalinoid if not actively Leninist (see https://clarespark.com/2011/04/09/jean-francois-revel-and-father-mapple/).

It takes a long time for cultures to change so drastically. Here are a few turning points, echoing my own research interests, that could lead either to a more thoughtful polity, or to a proto-fascist rejection of liberalism, eighteenth-century style, and especially the rejection of an excellent popular education, for without universal education, the notion of representative government must degenerate into oligarchy:

  1. The invention of the printing press helped the Reformation.
  2. The scientific revolution and the English Civil War emboldened freedom of conscience and the acceptability of  improvement of the material conditions of this world, rather than focusing all hopes for happiness on the afterlife.
  3. The Enlightenment terrified Kings, nobles, and aristocratic hierarchies, so their preferred writers counter-attacked with the Terror-Gothic style in art and life, scaring everyone with mad scientist stories and the Christ-refusing Wandering Jew who longed for death.
  4. The American Revolution, followed by the French Revolution, raised the increasingly frightening Hydra heads of “popular sovereignty”—that would have made education the basis for a rational politics. Ordinary people (the radical Whigs) were studying and discussing fine points of law, history, and philosophy among themselves. But the fight between Federalists and Antifederalists set the stage for future conflicts, unresolved today, between the few and the many, i.e., natural aristocrats versus the less “worthy.” Populism did not suddenly emerge in the 1890s, but is visible in conflicts between debtors and creditors (Shay’s Rebellion) or in resistance to excise taxes (the Whiskey Rebellion). The output of Charles Beard in the early 20th century reflected these earlier suspicions of bond holders (see his still quoted but fallacious Economic Origins of the Constitution, 1913).
  5. The failure of Reconstruction after the American Civil War enabled the perpetuation of slavery by other means, e.g. debt-peonage and Jim Crow. Such ferocious treatment of the freedmen then engendered the beginnings of the civil rights movement, with its demand for education for all, but most especially the black population. It is often said that the South won the peace.
  6. The first world war enabled the Bolshevik coup in Russia, enchanting a whole generation of  intellectuals who thought that finally the Enlightenment and progress had been vindicated. To contain the Populist movement and then the Socialist Party and the IWW in America, Progressives (self-styled “moderate” conservatives) shifted into high leftish gear, co-opting the  populist program and gradually increased the reach of the state for  purposes of “social justice”—and social justice and the ethical state had a long history in the U.S., starting with the debates over the Constitution from the mid-1770s onward.
  7. The Great Depression and the growth of leftish sympathies among the intelligentsia, along with fears for another Depression that would follow demobilization from the looming world war, inspired “socially responsible capitalism” and the adoption of Keynesian economics by key leaders in education, business, and social psychology by 1942. Collectivism and culturalism ruled. Frederick Merk at Harvard inveighed against American expansionism, while the Talcott Parsons cohort at Harvard called a halt to the Enlightenment, such as it was at that time. The liberal foundations went to work to put a labor-friendly face on business, and funded such “community”-centered institutions as Pacifica Radio, that proudly declared their independence from filthy lucre. Today, NPR hosts raising public funds curl their lips at the mention of “corporate media,” which of course they are not.
  8. After the second world war, no one called a conference to examine the intensity of antisemitism in America and in the West. Yet many isolationists had blamed the Jews for American involvement in the war. But Rooseveltian internationalism/the United Nations ruled the day, and that meant competing with both the Soviets and Chinese Communists for the hearts and minds of the Third World.  Attention turned increasingly to the sins of the national past, and Melville was revived as a harsh critic of U.S. imperialism and racism, as “America’s greatest writer.” But his character  Captain Ahab could not be engaged on a quest for truth, or as a critic of Leviathan (the ever-growing State power), or as a radical puritan (see Paradise Lost) but as an “anticipation” of Stalin and Hitler. That impression is almost universally adopted today amongst the literati. Stalinists bonded with militant black nationalists, eschewing “integrationist” strategies, while bohemians went native, liking black entertainers as a release from puritanical upbringing.
  9. During the 1960s student strikes at such places as Columbia U. and Harvard, “moderate” professors at least sympathized with the strikers. The notion of the horrid corporate state (big business in bed with government against “the folks”) was standard fare in the humanities, and it was here that the anti-science, anti-materialist forces gained ever larger audiences. Enter Foucault and postmodernism, sex,     drugs, and rock ‘n roll as a replay of 1920s disillusion and nihilism. But by now we have reached the 1970s and 1980s, when PC and multiculturalism became institutionalized, as I found out to my horror when program director at KPFK in Los Angeles, and then later in graduate school at UCLA during the 1980s-early 90s. See my Pacifica memoirs, posted on the website (https://clarespark.com/2010/10/21/links-to-pacifica-memoirs/).

September 8, 2011

Getting Down with Tom Wolfe

Time lauds A Man In Full

I found an old talk, “Getting Down,” that I gave on Pacifica radio (KPFK-FM, Oct. 1, 1990), now updated because I have been reading Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novels and collected essays. I view Wolfe as primarily a bohemian, a primitivist, who, after “getting down” comes home to classicism and a really nice apartment on the Upper East Side of  NYC, cluttered, like much of his prose. (For a tour, see http://www.theselby.com/2007TomWolfe/index.html.)  It is the mark of the true gentleman, adventuring into “New Journalism” with its literary oomph, its Zola-like passion for naturalism, realism and the organically-connected big picture, that he may saunter through the lower depths of society, sliding into their particular argot; only to retreat to his natural milieu without stains to his own sense of moral purity, his character; hence the signature white suit and the shrill rejection of modern art and architecture (the modernism so favored by Wall Street types?), with a vengeance. Tom Wolfe wants us to see him as a dandy, and yet not a dandy; as an agrarian, but also the knowing and sophisticated cosmopolitan, not so very unlike (like?) a Southern gentleman of old Virginia where he was born.

What is the problem with such Wolfian wandering, perhaps nostalgie pour la boue? Bohemianism or primitivism may be the primary type of social criticism that is tolerated in a pluralist society that has banished class analysis and class politics in favor of multiple and overlapping “interest groups.”  What is class analysis?*  What it is not, is the description of the culture of classes as if they were strata, or layers, or rungs on a ladder–or tribes to be dissected by the excavating archaeologist/anthropologist (the Wolfian gesture) As many radicals in the nineteenth century conceived them, classes were described in terms of their relations to other classes, specifically the ways in which workers were exploited and coerced; lacking land or tools or capital, they were at the mercy of their employers.  This led to political organization along class lines and the rise of socialist parties, culminating in the revolutionary period that preceded and followed the first world war: this kind of social analysis that focused on structural antagonisms between capital and labor was associated by conservatives and reactionaries with the myth of Prometheus, demagoguery, jacobin purity, and Jews spewing hate and plotting to destroy Christian order. Organic conservatives in England and America were terrified in 1919, and urged each other to move sharply to the left to map, thence to co-opt, dissent, and to propose a different conception of class, one that “integrated” them into an “organic” polity. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/.)

Decor in Wolfe’s NYC apartment

In 1919 the populist anticapitalists of The Nation were indulging in a form of primitivism, like Lewis Mumford, looking backward to a golden age of little towns in a cultivated pastoral, where the economy seemed to follow the communitarian ethos of artisans and small producers, with a strong dollop of Anglo-Saxonism.  But there were other forms of primitivism in the 1920s (and earlier), with which we are all familiar: the upper-class vogue for Harlem and jazz, the romance of the South Seas, the primitive masks and artifacts which inspired Picasso and other cubists; the art of the insane which fascinated the expressionists.  These were not only forms of escape; they enabled a critique of uptight war-engendering “bourgeois culture.”  By identifying with the victims of imperialism, with honest dirt, the bohemians had a safe launching pad from which to criticize their zealously perfectionist, super-clean, hard-driving parents, the parents you could never please, because they wanted you both to be independent and choose their way of life, pretending that you were “free” to choose. (I am thinking of Melville here, especially in his first book, Typee.)

But the protest could never have matured into a politics of transformation, that is, rational politics addressing the structural causes of suffering; for after the carnival was over, the bohemians feared and (covertly) despised the lower orders, who were loved primarily as foils to their parents.  If the entertainers stopped singing and dancing and copulating, if they wanted to modernize, i.e., to participate in politics as educated equals or leaders, the spell was broken.  They had to be one’s “negative identity” for the ritual rebellion to work: the walls between self and the exotic never tumbled down. In the case of Tom Wolfe, it is notable that his most lubricious female characters have wildly arranged jet black hair; they could be whitened slave women, Lulus, who lure white men to their destruction, to the pollution of their blue blood. (For instance the irresistible femmes fatales in Bonfire of the Vanities or in A Man in Full.)

In the writings of the American Studies movement (Wolfe has a Yale Ph.D, in this field), in the counter-culture and in many New Leftists, the same bohemianism obtained.  I suspect that many New Left lovers of black people or Third World victims were seduced by the qualities imputed to them: superhuman strength, savagery, happy-go-lucky child-like qualities, sexual freedom and other forms of expressiveness, like the blues.  Or because, as peasants, they were close to the soil, rooted, and one could imagine an idyllic society where individuals did not have to make hard, ambiguous choices, in which morality was not so clear-cut and regulated, in which kindly patriarchal figures did not arouse parricidal feelings of resentment in the children: this may be the fantasy in the counter-culture embrace of organicism or Confucius or Zen, or in Wolfe’s case, of Epictetus’s Stoicism.  In this scenario, empiricism, science and rationalism were treated solely as the deceptions foisted upon their victims by capitalists; similarly, capitalist advertising terminally corrupted the lower orders with sex-obsessed media, materialism and consumerism.  What were the consequences for relations between blacks and white civil rights workers, or between workers and the counter-culture, or between opponents of government-supported shocking art and the artists who shock the public?

It is one of the myths of the upper-classes that poor people are irrational and cannot grasp their interests without the intervention of middle-class or upper-class radicals.  Many black people knew that their cultures were being misread and appropriated by these latter-day minstrel show fans.  Many workers knew that technology had made life more bearable, and that rational politics advanced their interests; they also knew how to gauge the balance of forces, and what tactics would win. Workers are correct to resent the hippie radicals who profit from our system, without, in their view, making the blood sacrifices that workers do, then, from a position of moral superiority, upbraid them, or, in Wolfe’s case, appropriate them as surrogates for masculine honor and endurance in the face of overwhelming odds (see the character Conrad in A Man In Full).**

However, we also need to understand that primitivism, although the first stage of revolt in upper-class radicalism, may not necessarily stop with the identification with “the Other”; like all carnivals, it has the potential to get out of hand.  A certain amount of understanding and even forgiveness may be in order, when the primitivists show signs of growing up.  When we work with and interact with “the Other” as real people, as unique individuals, not as figments or masks, we may correct our distortions.  With insight, we may develop a more rational political culture.  But that will mean a commitment to self-education, self-scrutiny, and a sincere, not dilettantish,  interest in the problems of all Americans, not just the faraway.  As feminists, or black nationalists, or artists, or environmentalists, or civil libertarians, we may rail at white males, or Jews who we think control the media, or small-town/red state Republicans, or rednecks, or fascists, but these labels only build higher walls between us, they do not accurately describe the forces that have created our public health emergencies, and if we persist in these constructions of the demonic, our worst nightmares may come true.  If we want people to take a higher moral position, we must envision a society and a set of working relationships that make goodness possible.

*I am not suggesting a crude Marxism as adequate to historical analysis, but a careful account of competing economic interests and perceptions of one’s own self-interest. At times, Wolfe writes like a 1930s radical, such as John Dos Passos in the U.S.A. trilogy, which he admires. But whereas the 1930s Left was generally optimistic, TW is a cultural pessimist. See second footnote.

**One theme that I have not developed in this blog is Wolfe as chronicler of decadence, the calamity inevitable in industrial, urbanized societies that breed discontented, mobbish proletarians. Ann Coulter would seem to be sharing in this dim, ultimately pessimistic view, reminiscent of Vico and Volney, and more recently Hannah Arendt’s  “mob society.” In a recent talk given in Los Angeles, Coulter leaned on Gustave Le Bon’s influential book, The Crowd (1895) while promoting her new book, Demonic. Here are Le Bon’s concluding remarks: ” After having exerted its creative action, time begins that work of destruction from which neither gods nor men escape. Having reached a certain level of strength and complexity a civilisation ceases to grow, and having ceased to grow it is condemned to a speedy decline. [Its populace becomes a crowd, i.e. a mob]…With the progressive perishing of its ideal the race loses more and more the qualities that lent it its cohesion, its unity, its strength. The personality and intelligence of the individual may increase, but at the same time this collective egoism of the race is replaced by an excessive development of the egoism of the individual, accompanied by a weakening of character and a lessening of the capacity for action. …It is at this stage that men, divided by their interests and aspirations, and incapable any longer of self-government, require directing in their pettiest acts, and that the State exerts an absorbing influence…To pass in pursuit of an ideal from the barbarous to the civilised state, and then when this ideal has lost its virtue, to decline and die, such is the cycle of the life of a people.” Such doomsday views are the staple of ultra-organic conservatives, conflating the life cycles of animals and plants with forms of human organization. (For more on this topic see https://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/.)

June 9, 2011

When did “modernism” begin?

Ze’ev Sternhell

[This is an updated comment I once made on the Melville discussion group “Ishmail” in 2003. It reflects my reading at the time.]

First, was “modernism” as an art movement, modern, or was modernism a revolt against “feminized” Victorian culture/liberalism and rationalism, an entity that is for me the very model of modernity? Roger Sandall, a conservative anthropologist, sees the lot of modernists as romantic primitivists and a bad thing that influenced recent trends in the humanities (postmodernism). I have no doubt that the irrationalists Sandall excoriated were terrified of modern women. [Update: I should have mentioned the invention of the printing press as the beginning of modernism, but was not aware of this dating until I started noticing how “liberals” attacked autodidacts as assassins in the late 1990s. This became a major theme of my book on the Melville Revival (2001).]

Second, were 1930s cultural figures who expressed vicious statements about “the Jews” and their baleful influence in bringing about the transformations generally called modernity (but not always), also opponents of artistic modernism? I think that (leftist) Ze’ev Sternhell’s book Neither Left Nor Right: Fascist Ideology in France treats the problem in France and Italy, but I can recommend a run of a particular journal that shows how slippery these labels can be (Robert Paxton dislikes Sternhell’s “middle way” interpretation, rejecting the notion that France was ever fascist, though fascist writers and intellectuals surely existed there).

 American Review was published by Seward Collins, a supporter of the Southern Agrarians, and from whose ranks many of the New Critics emerged. Frankly profascist, it appeared from 1934-37, and attempted to synthesize the thought of New Humanists (incl. Irving Babbitt and More), the English Distributists (incl. G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc), the Neo-Thomists (incl. Robert Maynard Hutchins), and the Southern Agrarians (incl. Alan Tate, Donald Davidson). I read most of every issue, and I recall the animus toward James Joyce and Alfred Stieglitz, contrasting with the admiration for Eliot and Pound. In 1934, they published T. S. Eliot’s famous Barbour lecture at the University of Virginia in which he made his remark about limiting the number of freethinking Jews lest community cohesiveness be jeopardized.

I have described a lot of the materials in this fascinating journal (and it was a revelation to me) in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, as a number of their writers were great fans of Herman Melville.  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, for names of famous critics who published in AR.) There was also some crossover with the writers of American Literature, founded in 1929 I think. I have yet to go through Southern Review or other literary periodicals of the 1930s with similar politics.

The Trotskyists of Partisan Review were a confusing lot also. Picasso published a piece decrying the Stock Exchange in an early issue. They published T. S. Eliot (in 1943 I believe) and their writers were in the front lines defending Ezra Pound in the Bollingen Prize controversy of 1949, insisting on the separation between art and life.

It is only lately that I have discovered that “modernism” is seen as prefascist by more than Ze’ev Sternhell. I am reading (Catholic) Richard Noll’s history of The Jung Cult and was amazed to see Freud, Nietzsche, Wagner, Jung, and other “bourgeois” and crypto-Protestant cult leaders all grouped together as promoting the romantic individual, hence part of the supposedly volkisch ideology that fed Hitler and the Nazis. Theodor Herzl is similarly classified with these very bad, very modern fellows in a biography by Amos Elon.

I raised this issue on my KPFK program once (probably in the 1990s), and got a phone call from a frightened academic who said that it was professional suicide to make distinctions between the left-wing and right-wing modernists. If you are interested in the ideology of the New Critics who were so influential in the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum in the late 1930s, please read https://clarespark.com/2009/11/22/on-literariness-and-the-ethical-state/. You will see why my radio caller was afraid to be identified, even by his first name.

April 8, 2010

Racism, Modernity, Modernism

Columbus taking possession of the New World

[Added: Columbus Day, 2010. Because Herman Melville’s great-grandson Paul Metcalf had associated Columbus with Captain Ahab, it occurred to me that what the “anti-imperialist” anti-expansionists feared most was discovery as such. Finding out new things–for instance that admired authorities have been lying to you, or painfully over time finding out new truths in science and medicine–can get you fired, not hired, thrown out of graduate school or your profession or worse, much worse. So let us celebrate today the risky process of discovery, and honor those of our ancestors and contemporaries who are making the Ahab-ish leap from light into darkness that few of us would imitate. This is such a big subject that I wrote a recent blog about it: https://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.]

I have linked the problem of “race” and “racism” to “modernity” because numerous scholars and other writers on the Left blame modernity for racism. For them, the modern world begins with, and is defined by, the gold and resource-driven Western expansion into Asia, the New World, and Africa. Hence the primary feature of expansionism (i.e., imperialism) is the subjugation and exploitation of non-Europeans. Racism was said to originate in the need to explain the contradiction between Christian ethics and the cruelty and degradation visited upon native peoples, for example in the notion of “the White Man’s burden”—the moral imperative to uplift and rescue pagans through the superior religion of Christianity. But other voices would have preserved the pagans, either as primitivists or perhaps holding to the theory of polygenesis: the idea of separate creation. In that theory, humanity evolved separately in the different regions of the world—hence “races.” For these racists, there was no original set of homo sapiens in Africa that wandered the earth, mutating and adapting to drastically different environments. There are some white supremacists today who probably adhere to this polygenesis view of human evolution, and I have come across some on Facebook who call themselves by evocative names including the word “renaissance” but their aim is not humanism or the unity of our species, but the secession of white people from a multiracial polity (they are also interested in the subordination of women). These latter men are impressed by such as Carleton Coon, and the specter of miscegenation must give them hives.

Although it is true that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D. witnessed European expansion, there is another way to define modernity, and when I use that term, I refer to the transition from feudalism or other pre-capitalist economics to market economies.  That transition remains far from complete, as I have written here numerous times. The postmodernists/post-colonialists  believe they have not only dredged up the “submerged” cultures of native peoples, but have transcended the modernity that spun nativism (WASP supremacy), bureaucratic rationality and hence the Holocaust, but have they?  Was Nazism “the revolt of the masses” and the excrescence of modern Jacobins? Moreover, the Great Chain of Being or similar hierarchies of “interdependence” remain intact because the scientific revolution and the rise of industrialism and a burgeoning middle-class challenged  former ruling aristocracies with a newly literate class that was educating not only itself, but the lower orders. Enter team playing, the lovable fatherly Leader, and hierarchies would be preserved against the threat posed by the too-curious literate masses, including women. (For a perfect example of a model hierarchy see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/15/the-christianization-of-ziva-david-ncis/.)

Don’t scratch your head about the deficiencies in our public school education.  There is no moral imperative for those who identify with aristocracies, new or old, to give students the analytic tools they need to judge their superiors or elected officials. If there was serious education in our country, all students would study the sciences, economics (including the basic elements of accounting), the history of every social movement in the U.S. and the conflicts that they addressed, the wily ways of those who have governed us, and how to decipher the propaganda that urges deference to corrupt authority—from pre-school on through graduate school! (And I am not exempting the scrutiny of both high and popular culture from this menu. See the Ibsen excerpt here: https://clarespark.com/2009/11/02/a-ride-through-the-culture-wars-in-academe/.

Modernity, then, is founded upon the invention of the printing press and the spread of mass literacy and numeracy. It is about the growth of competitive markets, and the hatred of the bourgeoisie expressed by aristocrats threatened by displacement. Many a New Left “cultural radical” was a would-be aristocrat, spurning the middle-class, and getting down with the lower orders (who were viewed as less uptight—indeed as the source of instinctual liberation). In came George Orwell, folklore and rock ‘n roll, out went classical music and the bourgeois entertainments that were related.

    Primitivism—a habit of mind in both the pre-war and post-Great War modernist movement in the arts—is a form of racism, though it is not the nasty kind that we associate with lynch mobs, institutional exclusion, segregation, and worse. Primitivism and irrationalism are overlapping categories: we let in what Freud called the Id forces to relax that persecuting, insomniac, maternal Hebraic puritan superego, just enough to keep us “balanced” and ecologically hip.

(See Freud’s 1933 topography of Superego, Ego and Id: the Superego reaches down and connects to the Id.* Or see the sequence of Picasso drawings elsewhere on this website: https://clarespark.com/2009/11/02/picasso-drawings-dreamy-mother-and-son-to-entwined-peasants/.) But since primitivism is a release, not a way of life that takes up the challenge of modernity in order to improve everyone’s material condition, it cannot help non-whites achieve the American Dream: rather primitivism idealizes the lives of “carefree” non-whites and helps recruit middle-class kids from authoritarian families (or subtly authoritarian) to support for “wars of national liberation.”  At least that was the 1960s-70s protocol. So when the elite universities and the national government instituted multiculturalism, accommodating and supposedly defusing militant cultural nationalist movements among minorities, the hipper white kids got on the bus, not bothering to look back upon the history of racial theory.

Had they done so, they would have quickly discovered the origin of “multiculturalism” and its associated moral relativism in the theories of J. G. von Herder and the German Romantics who followed. They would have discovered that there were two Enlightenments: one promoting the careful and exhaustive empirical study of this world; its competition—the pseudo-Enlightenment–reacting to the proto-jacobin “mechanical materialism” of the Enlightenment with corporatism and the notion of national or racial character, a “different” Enlightenment or Aufklärung that preserved hierarchies, favoring the Greek way also known as “socially responsible capitalism.” There was nothing democratic or egalitarian in the rooted cosmopolitan thought of Herder, Goethe, Fichte, and the hordes of social theorists who followed. The omnipresent word “diversity” today refers to the mystical organicism of Herder, Goethe, and their neoclassical, “tolerant” successors (e.g., Saint-Simon as elucidated by Frank E. Manuel, in his The Prophets of Paris). As I have said before, multiculturalism is an elite strategy to micromanage group conflict with their version of reparations; MC has nothing to do with unifying our species or spreading the skills that will help all of us to survive the numerous looming emergencies that beset us. It is collectivist and pseudo-functionalist at its core, does not lift up non-whites (but demeans them with administrative pseudo-remedies like affirmative action that recognize “race” as something real in the world, not as a category that has been socially constructed and reconstructed), and will marginalize or destroy discovery, other innovations, and all dissent.

*The (tentative) diagram may be seen in Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Hogarth Press, 1967): Lecture 31, p.105. “You will observe how the super-ego goes down into the id; as the heir to the Oedipus complex it has, after all, intimate connections with the id” (p.104).

August 20, 2009

“Shakin’ The Blues Away”: primitivism, rock ‘n roll and mental health

   Everyone is excited now about the proposed initiatives to reform mental health care, and though there are numerous references to “mental health services” in H.R. 3200, I have seen little or no discussion about the debates within the fields, for instance, who exactly is qualified to mess with our brains and endocrine systems by treating everything from marital spats to incipient schizophrenia, OCD, or the numerous “personality disorders” covered in DSM IV (soon to be DSM V: I can’t wait). According to the House bill under consideration, mental health services are to be reimbursed as long as the provider has either a doctorate or a master’s degree (i.e., is a clinical psychologist or a social worker), has had two years of supervision in treating clients, and is licensed by the state. I have already asked one psychiatrist friend to comment on how M.D.s are viewing these proposals, and know from personal experience and study in both older practices and more recent cultural history treatments of “madness” (heavily influenced by Michel Foucault) that there is zero agreement among “counselors” (as H.R. 32oo calls these providers) as to what causes mental illness, let alone how to treat, manage, or cure it/them. Meanwhile the Foucauldians instruct the hip young at the better universities that madness is a social construction invented by the bourgeoisie who want to control everyone else. And the writing of history itself is under suspicion: it is a narrative “written by the plebs” to punish geniuses like himself.

    Readers of my prior blogs will notice that all of them deal either directly or tangentially with how we feel and act/don’t act in the world, and how we identify the source of evil or account for our own unhappiness or failure, often blaming “the Jews” or modern women (these are conflated in the idea of the femme fatale). Like Freud, I take instruction from the arts, for the major literary figures of the last several centuries were all concerned with what passes for sanity, adjustment, or vigorous, righteous resistance to arbitrary authority, and one recurring theme is the incarceration by conservative families of their dissident young)–a major theme in early nineteenth-century literature.. In this one, short I hope, I want to comment on  what I learned from reading passages from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1922), particularly in one of the debates between “Naphta” a Jew turned authoritarian Jesuit, and Settembrini, an optimistic bourgeois humanist who believes in amelioration, health, and progress. (Mann is obviously arguing with himself, trying to reconcile or at least examine the warring parts of his own personality: read Dr. Faustus as another case study of Mann’s preoccupation with this theme, as was Herman Melville before him.) Here is an excerpt from Magic Mountain:

 [Hans Castorp thinks that “disease was unhuman”:] “On the contrary, Naphta hastened to say. Disease was very human indeed. For to be man was to be ailing. Man was essentially ailing, his state of unhealthiness was what made him man. There were those who wanted to make him “healthy,” to to make him “go back to nature,” when, the truth was, he never had been “natural.” All the propaganda carried on today by the prophets of nature, the experiments in regeneration, the uncooked food, fresh-air cures, sun-bathing, and so on, the whole Rousseauian paraphernalia, had as its goal nothing but the dehumanization, the animalizing of man. They talked of “humanity,” of nobility—but it was the spirit alone that distinguished man, as a creature largely divorced from nature, largely opposed to her in feeling, from all other forms of organic life. In man’s spirit, then, resided his true nobility and his merit—in his state of disease, as it were; in a word, the more ailing he was, by so much was he the more man. The genius of disease was more human than the genius of health. How, then, could one who posed as the friend of man shut his eyes to these fundamental truths concerning man’s humanity? Herr Settembrini had progress ever on his lips: was he aware that all progress, is so far as there was such a thing, was due to illness, and to illness alone? In other words, to genius, which was the same thing? Had not the normal, since time was, lived on the achievements of the abnormal? Men consciously and voluntarily descended into disease and madness, in search of knowledge which, acquired by fanaticism, would lead back to health; after the possession and use of it had ceased to be conditioned by that heroic and abnormal act of sacrifice. That was the true death on the cross, the true Atonement.” [Knopf, 1968 edition, pp. 465-66]

     I was astonished to read this paragraph, for it gave me a new clue as to why Melville had written to Hawthorne shortly after he completed Moby-Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb.” And does not “crazy” Ahab carry “a crucifixion in his face”? As writer, Melville’s primitivist descent into madness (into the world controlled by the Devil?) accomplished several things for him: 1. as in Typee, he could safely criticize his conservative family and certain missionaries from a distance; but 2. as romantic artist he took the risk of destroying religion, and religion was the route to social cohesion and conservative notions of “order.” And it must be said here that “Naphta” and his predecessors (Nietzsche) knew very little about real “madness” and its multiple causation in genetic inheritance, belief systems that distort reality (and somewhat described in prior blogs here), overwhelming stress, and other factors that physicians have studied and continue to explore with emphasis on the physiology of the brain.

    And remember R. D. Laing and the 1960s-70s vogue for his romantic views of madness as a source of connection with the real world? I was reminded too of Diderot’s primitivism in his Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville (centuries before Laing’s ravings), a fantasy of life in Tahiti where there are no sexual prohibitions whatsoever. Which takes me to the 60s counter-culture/New Left appropriation of primitivism in their astonishing and still existing devotion to rock ‘n roll and/or hip-hop culture as a form of rebellion and self-assertion against the hypocritical dowdy and classical-music, old-standard loving prior generations–the generation they blamed for the Viet Nam war and the election of Richard Nixon.

    It is my view that primitivism is no solution to racism, but rather a ratification of the old stereotype conveyed by Diderot: that (perpetual?) adolescents  can escape “surplus repression” (Marcuse), or the Performance Principle (Freud) by going native. But in the elevation of black criminal elements (e.g. the Panthers or the Afrocentric pseudo-historians, one of whom repeatedly produced the viciously anti-Western and antisemitic “Afrikan Mental Liberation Weekend” for KPFK in Los Angeles), they are maintaining the stereotype of the black person as savage yet entertaining minstrel, a minstrel supposedly ragging on the upper classes. So sensible black intellectuals who identify with a supposedly (jewified) puritanical and genteel middle-class and the American Dream are seen as uncool killjoys and can be safely ignored.

   The primitivist strategy, like pornography, is controversial. For its defenders, though appearing crazy,  primitivism is a harmless catharsis for anti-social impulses. I suppose one would have to study individuals and their ideological leanings, including the ability to form and maintain enduring attachments, or conversely, to change their minds as they travel along the road to “objectivity” to make inroads on this judgment. (See Lippmann’s writing on this beneficent transformation, emphasized in my last blog.) More later as I survey existing debates within the field of mental health. Surely the narratives that are constructed for us by our families and teachers relating to our own biographies, to the national biography, and to America’s relations to other groups or societies, are of concern for all workers striving to enhance what is all too loosely described as mental health.

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.