YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 2, 2014

“The Affair” and the Country versus the City


[Update 12-14-2015: there were minor errors in my first impressions of this series, which got a Golden Globes award for Drama after the first season. 1. The murder victim is Cole’s brother, Scottie, a junkie. 2. Alison’s baby died of drowning (hence the pervasive water images). 3. Alison has become a symbol of the persistent attraction of small town life, and has gone darker, as has Noah. 4. Oscar (the red-headed Jew (?) is apparently the father of Alison’s baby owing to an impulsive one-night stand. 4. The most favorable characters are now the discarded spouses, Helen and Cole. Indeed, Maura Tierney (Helen) has been nominated for a Golden Globes Award, which she will probably win. To conclude: the 1960s turn to primitivism (in emotion, hence in closeness to “Nature”  is probably the most obvious theme of this (anti-modern) series.]

Showtime has a new drama series about two married persons living in Montauk (one is vacationing there) that I would thought would be no more than the usual soft porn directed at a middle class cable audience, but it is more interesting than that.

Here are the features that I find indicative of current politics:

First, the hero (“Noah Soloway,” played by Dominic West), a writer with one published work of fiction to his name, has married above his socio-economic class and must cope with bourgeois, success-driven in-laws, an intelligent wife (Maura Tierney) and four children. His successful father-in-law is also a writer, but a best seller author who taunts him. His mother-in-law, also outspoken and nasty, calls him a [loony] “idealist” in front of the protagonist’s family.


Second, the anti-hero has a meeting with his wife’s father’s agent (arranged by dad), in which he telegraphs the theme of the series: it will about the decline of “the American pastoral” and the struggle to preserve small town values in the face of modernization and urbanization. In the end, the married protagonist will kill his small-town lover. That alone interests the agent.

Third, there is a mystery: the female lover’s boss wants to put a bowling alley next to his diner; “Cole” (played by Joshua Jackson) the husband of the Ruth Wilson character (“Alison Lockhart,” a bereaved parent whose son has recently died, perhaps of cancer), makes a substantial speech at a town meeting that is considering the over-commercialization of Montauk and the subsequent loss of “community.” At this point, we suspect that someone has murdered Cole (probably the upwardly mobile avatar of “progress”), for the two lovers are being interrogated by a detective, and a male murder victim is mentioned. Since Alison is present, and mentions missing “him” the suspense does not lie in who killed whom.


Fourth, each episode is divided in half. The first half describes events mostly from “Noah’s recollection, while the second half is told from the woman’s perspective. They are drastically different, with Noah recalling the sexual aggressiveness of his partner in deception, while Alison has much more on her mind, namely politics and her grief. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Affair_(TV_series).

Clearly, Showtime is run by progressives, who demonstrate their postmodern, hip commitments by criticizing the intact heterosexual family and showing the subjectivity of “perspectivism.” In addition to class and gender struggle, some nudity and forbidden sex, we have the critique of progress. Indeed, one of the characters sneers at the thought of Montauk turning into Easthampton.

And are not these identical themes being played out in our current political struggle for the US Senate? And it will be the redneck diner owner (“Oscar” played by Darren Goldstein) who probably did the dirty deed: how dare he strive for “development?”


February 22, 2014

Healthy Skepticism

noimageThis blog is about healthy skepticism versus the sort of philosophical skepticism that is blatantly nihilistic and/or reactionary. In writing this piece, I am immersed in rereading my favorite passages in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Like most of his other works, the theme of the book is protest against the rule of the moderate man of the Enlightenment. Even another “Captain Ahab” makes an early, but brief appearance as a wooden-legged scoffer at the masquerades of the multiform confidence men who dot the book. These con artists are shape shifters, and include “Black Guinea, the herb doctor, the cosmopolitan, and more. The theme is “No Trust.”

What we are to distrust (says Melville) is the moderate Enlightenment theme of cosmic benevolence, and the very idea of progress from pre-industrial to market societies, where everyone wears a mask (role-playing) and bamboozles his or her victims. I remember the art critic Harold Rosenberg lauding this particular Melville text in the late 1940s, perhaps as his sour response to the weakly resisted Holocaust, the latter surely an example of an absent deity and the depraved indifference of humanity writ large. He read the text with understanding of its allover trajectory of nihilism and abandonment in an empty universe. Such are the ways of nihilism, a popular artistic theme in the immediate period following WW2. What do I think of this trend, still extant today? davidhume To a large extent, we are all prisoners of our particular families, personal and world histories. I will give “the new historicists” that. What is the engaged citizen supposed to do, given the imprisonment in specific contexts? Should we all turn ourselves into the figure of Pierrot, the spectator, who comments, but with blood on his hands because of his passivity? (For a picture of Picasso’s immobilized seated Pierrot of 1918, and a collage linking antisemitism and misogyny see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/.) Melville went back and forth on this question: sometimes roaring as the unmasker of frauds, sometimes soothing himself with reveries that returned him to the perfectly happy family.

[David Hume on moderation, History of England, Vol.8, pp 310-311, jousting with Locke:] “The Whig party, for a course of near seventy years, has, almost without interruption, enjoyed the whole authority of government; and no honors or offices could be obtained but by their countenance and protection. But this event, which in some particulars has been advantageous to the state, has proved destructive to the truth of history, and has established many gross falsehoods, which it is unaccountable how any civilized nation could have embraced with regard to its domestic occurrences. Compositions the most despicable, both for style and matter, have been extolled, and propagated, and read; as if they had equaled the most celebrated remains of antiquity. And forgetting that a regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinated to a reverence for established government, the prevailing faction has celebrated only the partisans of the former, who pursued as their object the perfection of civil society, and has extolled them at the expense of their antagonists, who maintained those maxims that are essential to its very existence. But extremes of all kinds are to be avoided; and though no one will ever please either faction by moderate opinions, it is there we are most likely to meet with truth and certainty.”

And why not embrace the manipulative moderates, rejecting Locke and empiricism as Hume did, to his everlasting glory in the political ruling class? Few of us have the inner strength and indomitable will to escape the prisons of our contexts, to strip ourselves and our institutions of pretense. And so we fail. Back in the days when I was friends with leftists, I remember reading that it was the task of each generation to determine what was possible, given the times, to accomplish something that would advance human liberation.  I still think that is a noble aspiration, and grown-up too, for only chiliasts and other apocalyptic thinkers and actors would imagine immediate utopian outcomes to our efforts at understanding the world with a modicum of accuracy. The point of this blog: to be skeptical of pretenses to expert knowledge, but, after much investigation, to make a stand for empiricism and  self-discovery, for human mental and physical health, even though present pressures and future developments could render our decisions flawed and ignorant. But not to succumb to utter nihilism, as Melville did during a difficult period in his own life, lived in a transition from a pre-industrial world to a new world that seemingly rewarded only frauds and phonies.

[From Moby-Dick:] “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.  Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks.  Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

     Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”(Northwestern-Newberry edition, 363-364). Has Ahab seized the narration, or is it the survivor/spectator Ishmael who warns against knowledge of the self that could estrange him from the family of origin? Or is the narrator saying that to discover that we don’t know ourselves is an unbearable horror?

Pierrot can and should bend the bars of his prison to escape, at least for the moment. We should know when we bite our tongues, and forgive ourselves for not always speaking or writing what we most deeply feel and think. I feel an Ishmael writing here.

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

Lipschitz, Pierrot Escapes

February 27, 2013

“American exceptionalism” retold

american-progress-ideation2I have already compiled a list of turning points for the ascent/decline of “the West” here: https://clarespark.com/2011/10/24/turning-points-in-the-ascentdecline-of-the-west/. But the purpose of this blog is to suggest a counter-narrative for American history, warts and all. The goal is to find an approach to US history that will not leave students or your home-schooled child adrift with lifeboats offering only tendentious accounts of US history, and offering either idealized or demonized versions of the American past. (For a patriotic account by “America’s greatest writer” see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/, or try this more recent one: https://clarespark.com/2014/02/07/herman-melville-on-the-materialist-solitary-backwoodsman/.)

In a short blog, I can outline only some major points.

First, to present a corrected version of US history, it cannot be rooted solely in America, with non-whites the hapless victims of murderous European-born whites. During the age of expansion, conflicts between France, England, Spain and the Netherlands were critical. Had Americans not expanded West, say by hugging the Atlantic coast, there might subsequently have been a jigsaw of European colonies like the map of Africa in the late 19th century and onward.

Second, westward expansion also exacerbated conflict between the industrializing North and slaveholding South. Without an economic history of these regions, US history and the politics of expansion remain incomprehensible.

Third, although ethnocentrism can be found in many cultures, racism in the U.S. directed against non-whites was a by-product* of American (and world) economic development (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnocentrism, or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism). But anti-imperialists deny that racism has been partly corrected, insisting that “institutional racism” persists despite the civil rights movement and its achievements. (I do not mean to minimize the effects of racism: see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/the-persistence-of-white-racism/.) Nor would the anti-Americans examine the obliteration of high Western and American culture, substituting a popular culture that is mostly primitivist. Going native is a major cause of mass psychological regression to a stage of life where “adults” are over-influenced by parental surrogates and other ideologically tainted authority. Such primitivist regression is rarely criticized by hipster democrats; by contrast, communists accept a notion of Progress that ineluctably leads to Leninist bureaucratic centralism and that demonizes ‘capitalism’/market society as an imposition by filthy lucre and their “commercial” mass media.

Fourth, infuriated by leftist critics of US imperialism (often concentrated in the blue states), some “red state” patriots argue that the warts are removed, that American self-criticism has lifted us out of the Slough of Despond, and that the concept of American exceptionalism should be rehabilitated. This is a shallow judgment, though I partly agree. Urban decay and a rotting public school system for inner city kids remains an unsolved problem, one of many, including massive waste and fraud at every level of government.

Fifth, not enough weight is given to the bounty of Nature that greeted the first European settlers, an abundance preserved by mostly hunter-gatherer Indian tribes that famously refused “development.” Much of American economic success battened off the virgin land, and we are evading real environmental problems if we imagine that the Green movement is nothing but a communist plot in all its manifestations. (See Bob Ennis’s comment below, with which I concur.)

Sixth, though some “traditionalists” on the Right prefer a view of the Constitution as divinely inspired,  we do better by our children and ourselves to celebrate cultural and political pluralism. The secular state does not signify atheism, communism, and the end of pluralism, but rather secularism is the guarantee of personal freedom and the unmatched luxury of individuality. It is in our Bill of  Rights, along with the relatively free markets that are responsible for unprecedented upward mobility and wealth creation, that “American exceptionalism” really exists.

*There used to be a debate among historians whether racism caused slavery, or whether slavery caused racism, but it is now the case that major scholars treat “racism” as an independent variable, and indeed they claim that racism is the engine of U.S. history, a flaw so terrible and omnipresent that reparations are demanded. Do not underestimate the determination and penetration of non-white cultural nationalists. See https://clarespark.com/2012/02/09/glee-goes-la-raza/, also the illustration above, which takes its cue from Diego Rivera’s Stalinist murals, with a strong dose of the Fantastic and Surrealism.

April 3, 2011

Progressives, the luxury debate, and decadence

Thos. Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836

Our nation is currently embroiled in a turmoil over finances, the debt, and the potential fall of the  American Republic, indeed, of the West itself. This blog sketches contrasting theories of progress and decadence. The purpose is to identify the eclectic character of history as written by the Progressives and their progeny. I propose that there are three primary schools of interpretation: one is entirely religious, and two are secular, but are not identical. All three are infused with what historians call “the luxury debate,” the secularism debate, and the danger of cities.

1. Many Christians take the position that there was a Golden Age in Eden before Eve ate of the Apple. Since that fatal bite, the world is fallen, and all hopes for amelioration are transferred to Paradise. The world we inhabit is a vale of tears and we “see through a glass, darkly.” The author Hilaire Belloc was of this view, and, like other ultra-Catholics, fixated his attention on the Crucifixion as the moment when Christ’s passion  purified humanity of its sins, promising a better place for the faithful after death. Arthur Lovejoy’s book, The Great Chain of Being, spelled out the Platonic-Christian world view very clearly. If an historian is known by the ability to distinguish between change and continuity through the accumulation of empirical evidence, then such “periodization” is irrelevant within this anti-materialist world view. See my blog on Nicholas Boyle for an example: https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.

2.  In the eighteenth century, Volney and others (Vico, earlier) dramatically intervened in the conservative Christian world-view with the cyclical view of history. That secular and “scientific” view is illustrated in Thomas Cole’s famous series The Course of Empire. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Course_of_Empire.) Cole’s bleak prognosis remains the preferred interpretation for organic conservatives who liken the course of history to the life cycles of plants (Goethe, for instance). A seed germinates, flourishes, then drops to the mold. Similarly, a warrior class is feminized by excessive love of luxury, and fails to maintain its defenses, hence  is invaded by warrior-barbarians, is destroyed, and we are left with romantic  ruins only. Such was the vision of those who posited a sequence of inevitable stages in the history of humanity. Keep in mind that “the Jews” have been seen as agents of feminization,  illicit luxury, and debauchery by such as the Nazis and New Dealers alike. Asceticism was the ticket to neoclassical order,  a point challenged by romantic Nietzsche in Genealogy of Morals.

3. With the development of capitalism and industry, innovations grounded in a scientific (materialist) and worldly view of humanity and its future, various optimistic proposals emerged before and during the American and French Revolutions. The most famous intervention was by Marx, but he was competing with various Utopians, also believers in Progress: Turgot, Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Comte.  But in all these cases, human nature was not fallen or doomed, but rather susceptible to changes in the environment and particularly in institutions that brought out the best in [malleable] human nature. Although the new industrial working class did not turn out to be the revolutionary class that would bring about emancipation and utopia(for Marxists), there was enough servile revolt (actually starting with the English Civil War) to implant the continued fear of the red menace in the upper classes. Their pre-emptive strategy was to make concessions to social movements originating from “below” or to attempt to co-opt them through various motions of conservative reform. The Populist-Progressive movement is the most prominent and still powerful of these tendencies in America; they were following that master strategist Bismarck, originator of social insurance even as he made the German Social Democratic Party illegal. Populist-Progressives may be found in either the Democratic or Republican Parties (the latter as “moderates”) and are spurned by “social conservatives” today.

Since the moderate men must deal with a constituency that is internally conflicted, they take pieces of earlier world-views and incorporate all of them in an incoherent and confusing mix. But mostly, they are slippery and hard to pin down, except where the Marxist-Leninist Left is concerned.  That Left is either purged or marginalized, so that current journalists can simply describe what was originally a “moderate conservative” movement as “the hard Left” fading gently into left-liberalism. State power in the service of redistributive justice unites all these tendencies—Marxist-Leninist Left and progressives alike. The moderate men support science, but attempt to halt the inevitable warfare between science and religion.  The recent British movie Creation (2009), a recounting of Darwin’s emotional struggles as he moved toward publication of The Origin of Species (1859), is one example. Yes, Darwin finally puts out into the world his completely destabilizing view of evolution and natural selection, removing God from direct interference in the plan for humanity, but he is buried with full Christian honors in Westminster Abbey. Goethe, with his Pelagian heresy (we are not fallen, there is no original sin), is memorialized throughout the progressive West as the greatest cosmopolitan intellectual ever, but Goethe’s view of human society and progress is grounded in the life of plants and follows Herder’s cultural relativism and rooted cosmopolitanism. His American utopia has no modern Jews—they lack “reverence” and “roots.”

Who then are the moderns? We are left with the classical liberals or libertarians. These thinkers, following Adam Smith, von Mises, Ayn Rand, Hayek, and the Friedmans, see competitive markets as the route to wealth creation and a better life on earth. They are worldly, but not immoralists, for some see the need for state action (see especially the legal theorist Richard A. Epstein). Their European predecessors were the “mechanical materialists” denounced by all the ultra-conservatives, faux liberals, and dialectical materialists who followed. It is this school (not necessarily united within their ranks) , who put the future in the laps of our assessing, choosing, individual selves, who reject the fatalism of Vico, Volney, or their Greek and Christian-Platonic predecessors. (For more on this subject see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/.)

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