YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 15, 2012

Sandy Hook, Candide, Melville, and the problem of Evil

Obama tears Candide, chapter 20, transl. Robert M. Adams (Norton, 1966):

[Candide:] “You must be possessed of the devil.

[Martin, the disillusioned scholar and Manichean:] He’s mixed up with so many things of this world that he may be in me as well as elsewhere; but I assure you, as I survey this globe, or globule, I think that God has abandoned it to some evil spirit—all of it except Eldorado. I have scarcely seen one town which did not want to destroy its neighboring town, no family which did not want to exterminate some other family. Everywhere the weak loathe the powerful, before whom they cringe, and the powerful treat them like brute cattle, to be sold for their meat and fleece. A million regimented assassins roam Europe from one end to the other, plying the trades of murder and robbery in an organized way for a living, because there is no more honest form of work for them; and in the cities which seem to enjoy peace and where the arts are flourishing, men are devoured by more envy, cares, and anxieties than a whole town experiences when it’s under siege. Private griefs are worse even than public trials. In a word, I have seen so much and suffered so much, that I am a Manichee.

[Candide:] Still there is some good.

[Martin:] That may be but I don’t know it.

(The late Robert M. Adams, who taught me expository writing at Cornell long ago, is the editor of this edition of Candide, and in his concluding essay, questions Puritan attitudes toward “work.” And yet, Voltaire was a great favorite in the Soviet Union.) Adams is devastating on the subject of Candide’s choice of the garden: “He has never really been with us, and now he is going back where he came from, to some place outside Europe, outside history, outside people, to a cold and lonely garden where the vegetable he cultivates most assiduously will be his own indifference, his own self-sufficiency. He was, is, and always will be, an outsider….” (p.173, 1966 edition. But see Georg Brandes’s two vol. biography of Voltaire, II, p. 145: To cultivate one’s garden signifies “…work [that] keeps them free of three great evils: ennui, sin, and poverty”…it is the consolation he holds out to the human race”. Nobody read Brandes any more (though Peter Gay, Ben Hecht, and I did), but Peter Gay sees Candide’s garden as all of Europe, and Voltaire as a radical activist.)

Adams's  Candide

It is instructive to see how each of us responds to this mass trauma in Newtown, Connecticut, so far away for most of us. We know almost nothing about Adam Lanza and his family dynamics, or even the details of the massacre, but we do know (or don’t know) about our own psyches. How we defend ourselves against such a horrible event is a way to get out of the inner darkness how each of us is put together. I will be watching myself, and hope others will try be self-reflective too.

In the comments that follow, I see each type of response as a defense against grief, seeking some soothing explanation or tactic that will explain what no one yet knows. I would suggest that all the comments, whether they come from Left or Right, tell us more about how we defend ourselves against our own often repressed rage and fears of loss of control than they tell us about Adam Lanza and the so-called ‘tragedy’ at Newtown, Connecticut.

I started with Voltaire’s controversial comment (speaking through Martin) on the problem of evil, a preoccupation that runs through the fiction of Herman Melville, who was well aware of Voltaire as a great infidel. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/. Melville invokes Voltaire in his annotations to Book 9 of Paradise Lost  comparing Milton with Voltaire as an “Infidel”.*  These annotations were read aloud by me on Pacifica Radio in 1990, but not published by scholars until years later, and then later detoxified by moderate men and women. It is notable that Lillian Hellman’s orignal play of Candide was watered down in later productions of the Bernstein musical.

Adam Lanza (20)

Adam Lanza (20)

What follows are various conservative diagnoses and advice regarding the ‘tragedy’** at Sandy Hook:

Bill O’Reilly: inexplicable “evil” [and he is expressing learned helplessness: nothing can be done (same as “the poor will always be with us”)]. Same with Hannity. Evil is the devil. A forensic psychologist agrees with Bill. Bill puts on camera a third grader Lebinski and her mother: questions her mother in front of the dazed child. Saturday: Monica Crowley: massacres not preventable [can’t imagine preventable measures and psychiatric interventions] Dr. Keith Ablow is an outlier on Fox: believes that the mental health system has broken down. Geraldo hates this kind of talk.

Family therapist/clinical psychologist; the community is gathering to start the process of healing. Various clerics: the children are angels now and are safe.

Second Amendment male, cited on FB: Obama had faked his tears to start the process of disarming the people.

[Added, 12-17-12: Bernie Goldberg criticizes Right wing for explaining massacre as absence of God in the classroom and abortion. O’Reilly brags that his was the best coverage on Cable (Friday) ignoring that he was intrusive in showing victims and a parent. He is also convinced that Lanza wasn’t a loon.]

Moderates, liberals and left-wing radical diagnostics follow:

The allover liberal explanation has three parts: 1.the shooter and his family; 2.poor security/wide availability of guns; 3. a culture of pervasive violence. All reiterated on Fox News Sunday.

Larry Mantle on NPR radio KPPC, Los  Angeles, interviewed a traumatized teacher and pushed her to divulge her feelings. Later some of her distraught words are repeated on NPR, All Things Considered.

Mental health professionals and other liberals: gun control. (i.e., regulate) (12-15) Dr. Alvin Poussaint from Harvard: a rare event, but gun control, conflict-resolution study should be supported.

Charles Krauthammer (12-14): he killed his mother and those attached to her. [He did not know that she was a volunteer teacher and that his brother claimed he might be autistic or suffer from some unstated learning disorder.]

Lefty on FB: Chicago is worse than this, and no one cares. Rich people get more sympathy and coverage. Lefty (cont.) OR Reagan started this by attacking warehousing of crazies (it was actually Carter’s idea, said one of my FB friends).

Dr. Alan Lipman (mental health professional) all signs were there that he could have had psychotic break into paranoid delusions. The aim is prevention and treatment. (Fox guest 8:20 am Saturday) See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Lipman. Founded a Center for the Study of Violence at Georgetown. Followed by Robert Stone, who diagnoses autism and lack of empathy.

Centrist child of divorce: incomprehensible and doesn’t know how he will explain it to his children.

Wall Street Journal editorial: a crushing event: let our emotions run pending further revelations.

*From Hunting Captain Ahab:  [To Mitford’s comment on Milton’s religious wanderings (xcix):] He who thinks for himself never can remain of the same mind.  I doubt not that darker doubts crossed Milton’s soul, than ever disturbed Voltair [sic].  And he was more of what is called an Infidel.

[To Satan’s seduction of Eve, Book IX, Melville double scored: “And life more perfect have attained than fate/ Meant me, by venturing higher than my lot.”(689-690) A partially erased note follows “Why then was this forbid? Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,/ His worshippers?”(also double scored, 703-705):]  This is one of the many profound atheistical hits of Milton. A greater than Lucretius, since he always teaches under a masque, and makes the Devil himself a Teacher & Messiah.  [Leyda marked the word “Fate” with an arrow].

[To Book X (5-11): “…for what can scape the eye/ Of God all-seeing, or deceive his heart/ Omniscient? who, in all things wise and just,/ Hindered not Satan to attempt the mind/ Of man, with strength entire, and free will armed,/ Complete to have discovered and repulsed/ Whatever wiles of foe or seeming friend.”]  The Fall of Adam did not so much prove him weak, as that God had made him so.  From all that is gatherable from Milton’s theology, the Son was created.  Now had the Son been planted in the Garden (instead of Adam) he would have withstood the temptation;–why then he and not Adam?  Because of his created superiority to Adam. [Leyda writes] “M adds, later: Sophomoricus”[1]

[Book X, (41-43): “…man should be seduced/ And flattered out of all, believing lies/ Against his maker…] All Milton’s strength & rhetoric suffice not to satisfy concerning this matter–free will.  Doubtless, he must have felt it himself: & looked upon it as the one great unavoidable flaw in his work.  But, indeed, God’s alleged omnipotence & foreknowledge, are insuperable bars to his being made an actor in any drama, imagined.[2]

NOTES to Melville’s annotations of Paradise Lost.


                [1] The word “sophomoricus” was written with a darker pencil and separated from the rest of the comment.

                [2] The two volumes, heavily annotated, with numerous comments erased or cut away, were offered anonymously at auction; Jay Leyda and Hershel Parker were allowed to copy the marginalia; Leyda reported to Harrison Hayford, 3/6/84 that Parker was “hysterical.”  Leyda’s transcription was sent to Harrison Hayford 2/4/85.  In a letter of August 18, 1987, Parker wrote to me “After seeing M’s Milton marginalia I would be more wary than ever about deriving a coherent ideology from M’s texts.” Hayford, at my request, sent me a photocopy 4/3/90. I have analyzed these annotations (and their implications for Melville scholarship) on Pacifica radio (KPFK) to celebrate Melville’s birthday in 1990 and 1991. Their new owner had refused access to scholars, but later sold the volumes to another anonymous collector who subsequently donated the Milton volumes to Princeton University.

A few of the comments have appeared in Robin Sandra Grey, “Surmising the Infidel: Interpreting Melville’s Annotations on Milton’s Poetry,” Milton Quarterly Vol.26, #4 (December 1992): 103-113.  Grey (a Milton scholar, not a Melvillean) finds herself “confronted with a reading of Milton’s ambitions and agenda so curious, indeed perverse, that perhaps only William Empson in Milton’s God and Harold Bloom in Ruin the Sacred Truths would have regarded Melville’s assessments without significant surprise” (110).  She has read Melville as another Satan: “…Milton’s powerful dramatic depictions of Satan’s character have interest for Melville largely as they reveal the tension in Satan between his former glory and virtue and his present degradations and viciousness” (fn 21, p.112).  Her comment on the Devil as Messiah annotation states her preference for “skeptical” Ishmael over “frenzied” Ahab, linking only Ishmael to the masque because of his remarks in the Whalers Chapel.  Cf. David Hume, HE, Vol.7, 337 (year 1660) on Paradise Lost, which he fervently admired despite its not being wholly purged of (Leveller) cant.

Hershel Parker has been reticent about these matters in the first volume of his authoritative Melville biography, Volume I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1996).  Of the marginalia I have quoted, Parker has heretofore published only the comment about Milton and Voltaire (618).  (One other annotation is quoted, in which Melville ratifies separation of church and state in Mitford’s Introduction.)  Paradise Lost influenced Moby-Dick insofar as “Melville took some of Ahab’s qualities as Satanic opponent…”Ahab is the “tyrannical captain” likened to Cromwell  (699-700).  Parker does not discuss the mysterious prior provenance of these books.  In the Historical Note to the N/N edition of Moby-Dick, Milton is mentioned, but his battles are aesthetic ones alone, as these sentences hint: “ [While writing the book] Melville’s imagination for many months had unrolled at will a panorama of Milton’s dubious battle on the plains of heaven. The dubious battle being waged in his study was…the most intense aesthetic struggle yet waged in the English language on this continent.” (617).

Parker has answered my query regarding his mental states while copying the annotations, also his intentions regarding their publication:  “I will not write an essay on HM and Milton, ever, but I will refer to the marginalia–esp in the 1860 chapters.” “I wasn’t hysterical, except that Jay and I were at the Phillips Gallery in 1983, not 84, with someone else who simply would not shut up his mouth. It was excruciating. I was not hysterical about the annotations. As usual with me, the excitement came long afterwards—when I was drafting the 1860 chapters of volume two, in 1990 or 1991 or so. I sacrificed myself and led him around the corner so Jay could have some time with the books. By the time the volumes came back on the market I had a set of the same edition and carried that up to NYC and got all I could, in the right place on the pages; the day was very overcast, but I got some erased words, nevertheless, by carrying the volumes to the windows.  Princeton tried some very expensive processes, I understand, but failed to recover erased words….I will quote all the recovered annotations in the LOG, I assume, when the time comes.” (e-mail message to me Nov.1, 1997).

** I questioned the current meaning of ‘tragedy,’ inferring that “in the best of all possible worlds” only hubris or a similar character flaw can bring us down.

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September 22, 2012

Materialist history and the idea of Progress

Rerum Novarum by gercalher

[This is the second of two blogs on the ambivalence surrounding the First Amendment. The first is https://clarespark.com/2012/09/21/milton-mason-melville-on-free-speech/. For an interview with David Horowitz about the book reviewed here, see http://tinyurl.com/adtw9c2. ]

Another marker in the culture wars has been laid down by David Horowitz’s new book Radicals (Regnery, 2012). The chapters recount the careers of Christopher Hitchens, Bettina Aptheker, Cornel West, assorted Weathermen bombers (mostly female), and Saul Alinsky’s power-grabbing, crypto-Leninist nihilistic ideology.

But it is the last chapter wherein Horowitz lays his cards on the table. As a traditionalist (i.e., Burkean, Disraelian) conservative, he assails the “progressives” described throughout the book, lauds “compromise” as the alternative to “progressive” atheism, puritanism, perfectionism and futurism, and then declares, pessimistically in my view, that all civilizations are cyclical: they rise and fall. This view is of course associated with Counter-Enlightenment organic conservatives, who impose the life cycle of plants (Goethe famously did this), onto human organization.

In short, with his apparent view that all conflicts can be compromised, David Horowitz is aligned with the moderate men. Though he is dismayed by aggressive radical atheists, whose foibles include a Manichaean distinction between Good and Evil, DH’s essentially religious orientation to conflict resolution seats him at the same table as the radicals he vigorously criticizes throughout. I can only infer that anyone who discerns irreconcilable conflicts must be an Evil extremist who destroys [ neoclassical] social order. His vision is antagonistic to “puritans” (i.e., Hebraic Protestant voluntarism, worldliness, and free-market capitalism, which he links to the Satanic). Such a posture is in agreement with the Elizabethan compromise of Anglo-Catholicism or even the liberal Catholicism promoted by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rerum_Novarum), a landmark pronouncement on the necessity of class harmony.  In other words, class harmony is Good, while unfettered materialism/atheism destroys and demoralizes families and all ordering institutions, in effect abandoning children to body- and spirit-crushing factories, nihilism and the terrifying immensities of an empty universe. Only a Satanist (or Promethean Romantic?) would commit such Evil acts.

Rerum Novarum Cupidus

I did not recognize myself as a materialist historian in any of Horowitz’s radicals.  Nor does he engage the battle of the sexes, putting quotation marks around the word “sexist”* (p.194)as if women have nothing to complain about.  I am a feminist, a materialist, and a secular Jew, who puts aside my private beliefs as I read archival materials and attempt to get inside the head of historical actors. DH is attuned to family relationships, as am I, and indeed faults Hitchens for failing to address his relations with his suicidal mother, a crypto-Jew.  But his criticism is not Freudian in any sense, but looks like a rebuke to the Mother’s dire “romantic” influence on her son, who never severed his ties with the [Romantic, Satanic] Left.

I have throughout this website carefully marked the original Progressive movement’s aims in addressing the red specter (through selective co-option), and in creating institutions that would soften relations between labor and capital—in order to prevent red revolution spurred by laissez-faire capitalism. I have also recognized the Communist infiltration of the progressive movement, taking advantage of New Leftism and its anti-anticommunist agenda, that further enabled the takeover of the humanities by the social justice avatars. But I cannot give all weight to the New Left for the deranged politics that confuse our political culture. We remain resistant to science and imagine that we are free when we are submissive to impulses laid down in early childhood, and reinforced in much of popular culture and/or partisan propaganda.

It is curious that nowhere in his book, does DH look at economic history or the conflicting models for wealth-creation offered by Keynesians as opposed to the followers of Milton Friedman, Hayek, et al. Nor does he get down and dirty in exploring generational conflict of the [Freudian] kind so tellingly explored by Herman Melville and a host of other authors. For that would be dipping into materialist history, facing “things as they are,” and perhaps delineating too disruptive, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic views of how we got into this mess.  (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2013/05/30/nostalgia-for-the-middle-ages/.)

[Added, 9-23-12: Compare DH’s view of “human nature” to this passage from John Dos Passos’s post-radical period:

Responding to German students as to what is admirable about US, “I told them they should admire the United States not for what we were but for what we might become. Selfgoverning democracy was not an established creed, but a program for growth. I reminded them that industrial society was a new thing in the world and that although we Americans had gone further than any people in spreading out its material benefits we were just beginning, amid crimes, illusions, mistakes and false starts, to get to work on how to spread out what people needed much more: the sense of belonging, the faith in human dignity, the confidence of each man in the greatness of his own soul without which life is a meaningless servitude….Faith in self-government, when all is said and done, is faith in the eventual goodness of man.” (p.508, Virginia Spencer Carr’s bio of John DP)

*The complete paragraph begins on p.193: “It is not because radicals begin by being unethical people that they approach politics this way. On the contrary, their passion for a future that is ethically perfect is what drives their political agendas and causes others to mistake them for idealists. But the very nature of this future–a world without poverty, without war, without racism, and without “sexism”–is so desirable, so noble, so perfect in contrast to everything that has preceded it as to justify any and every means to make it a reality.” I thank David Horowitz for welcoming discussion and catching my error. In a second communication, DH explains that the quotes around “sexism” expressed his dislike of viewing sexism and racism as comparable discriminations. Many readers will agree with him, but in a recent publication (Created in the Image of God)  David Brion Davis, a liberal, devotes an entire chapter to the subjugation of women, which Davis does compare to slavery.

July 31, 2012

Censorship, bohemia, and the Big Sleep

Haruhi Gothic Lolita

Having announced that I was thinking of writing a new blog on censorship in the arts and in the media, numerous Facebook friends sent me comments expressing their own disgust with the mass media, with the ineffective ratings system that fails to protect children from exposure to excessive violence, and with the general coarsening of our culture.

In prior blogs, I have complained mightily about what I perceive to be a loss of standards throughout the culture, sometimes focusing on primitivism, rappers, Tom Wolfe’s genteel variant of primitivism (https://clarespark.com/2011/09/08/getting-down-with-tom-wolfe/), and the Great Dumbing Down. One friend starts the dumbing down with the revolts of the 1960s, and there is something to be said for that turning point. Another blames the movies and mass culture in general. Many believe that the Aurora massacre was stimulated at least in part by the increasing violence of Hollywood movies. Indeed, I had already noticed the disturbing abundance of horror movies directed to adolescents. What was the appeal, I wondered, and still can’t answer that, other than speculating that youngsters are terrified of the modern world in ways that have not been adequately described: Feeling perhaps impotent in the face of predators, they Identify with the Aggressor, to use a once well-known Freudian formulation.

What could I possibly add to this discussion now, I wonder? In the past, I argued that cultural radicalism was not only wrong-headed, but a distraction from other questions that were not focused solely on sex and violence or political correctness.  I had insisted that the idea that words and images created reality for readers and viewers was in itself deeply ideological. But I did not dismiss the power of propaganda, but rather pointed out that popular explanations for the rise of Hitler among allies to the Roosevelt administration had blamed mass culture as the primary explanation for the bond of Hitler with the German people, thus discarding political errors, economics, and diplomacy. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/.)

I must say the same for the rowdy arts, whether found in pop culture or in the highest reaches of Kultur. While bohemians were kicking up their heels and converting adolescents to drugs, sex, and rock and roll as transformative politics, petit-bourgeois media reformers wanted positive images of their group, acting on the belief that “role models” (and “inclusion”) would repair grave deficiencies in education or family life. But these same reformers were reinforcing ethnic or racial ties, thus undermining the search for explanations of poverty that are more properly found in political and economic institutions, not just “discourses.”

Since the days of Plato and Aristotle, intellectuals have been fighting over the effects of pornography: Plato would have banished poets from the Republic, while Aristotle believed that catharsis through the arousal of pity and terror would keep the masses in line. I adhere to neither of these philosophies. Either we have a marketplace of ideas or we do not. What matters is the critical context surrounding controversial works of art or other toys and entertainments. Sadly, perhaps disastrously, the “critics” and other explicators of cultural artifacts tend to share the same ideology as those who produce the “edgier” pieces, and leave the field to those whose own sensibilities are disgusted  by “vanguard” works. Hence, our culture is impoverished. Vanguard artists and critics stand together, while “philistines” remain bemused and angry. The feedback loop is thus severed and everyone loses.

But more, what may be decisive is the deliberate silence around certain issues; e.g. the increasing acceptance of sadomasochism, Satanism, misogyny and antisemitism, or the opacity of governments, or the widely held belief that there is no truth, or the power of some families to screw up their kids, or limited interest in the great issues of our time, such as the causes of mass death in the 20th century—a subject that has been hitherto dominated by left-leaning statists with designs on the public.

vagina dentata vampire shoes

May 18, 2012

“Smash” and the demonic

Theresa Rebeck and Jess LynnI will get to Smash in a minute. I watch a lot of television, and have previously blogged about some of the ‘classier’ series, noting how the same intertwined themes are reiterated that have occupied culture in the West since the invention of the printing press:

  1. The authority of science and empiricism versus the claims and ordering of religious belief.
  2. Worldliness versus other-worldliness, sometimes expressed as the conflict between the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Nouveaux riches, like advertising men, are the devil’s disciples. Bruno Heller’s The Mentalist plays with this theme constantly, see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)
  3. With Promethean romanticism, the lure of fame and hyper-individualism as a threat to “traditional family values”.
  4. And flitting and in and out of all of the above, the thrill of the “demonic” as allied to “the  mob.”
  5. The role of the Broadway stage, movies, and television, now the internet in star-making or  conversely, dethroning or debunking “authority” and/or religion. The health-conferring country versus the crazy-making city, that unleashes  illicit ambition and Faustian bargains.
  6. How the social movements that accelerated in the 1960s have plunged American culture into heightened conflict regarding all of the above.
  7. Fat people versus thin people, and the health effects therein.

On to the super-expensive NBC-produced backstage musical, Smash. Theresa Rebeck, artistic creator, has left the show, for reasons that are not publicly stated. Rebeck is illustrated above, with a colleague, Sam Gold.

I have watched every episode twice. The actors and writers who have attempted to describe it have been mostly vague in their public pronouncements regarding their own characters, nor do they pretend to see deeply into the admitted complexities of Marilyn Monroe and/or her obvious predecessor the fabulous and similarly self-destructive Marilyn Miller, for whom she (no longer Norma Jean) was named. Rather, the series is organized around the conflicts I listed above: for instance, Marilyn, though a “bombshell” in the sex appeal department, has an underlying innocence, wholesomeness, and sweetness that the Jack Davenport character, director “Derek” (like JFK before him), sees in the Katherine McPhee character (Karen), in the series, a corn-fed Iowan with ordinary middle class parents, unlike her competition, the treacherous Megan Hilty (“Ivy,” the daughter of an aging Broadway star played by Bernadette Peters, who may expect too much of her daughter).  The country (as represented by “Iowa” Karen) wins the coveted starring role, partly because Derek has a hallucination in which she appears (more than once) in an entirely modest dress, of lavender with white trim; moreover she is not zoftig, unlike her rival Ivy (let alone size 14 MM), the easy urban girl, who, in her crushing defeat in the last episode is seen taking a full bottle of tranquilizers, rhyming with the death of MM from barbiturates and chloral hydrate.

The fact that Karen is living “in sin” with her (Asian) Indian boyfriend, does not detract from her purity, for she resists the temptation to sleep with Derek, unlike Ivy. Indeed, Karen is loyal to the play (still in workshop or previews) over temptations from a record producer who could make her famous without the slog through ensemble singing and dancing. In one of the funnier moments, Karen indignantly rebukes her lover in his proposal of marriage, for she exclaims that the show is “in tech!” and how dare he expect her to focus on anything outside the theater, though at that moment, she is only in the chorus.

On the fat versus thin battlefield, it is worth noting that tall and slender Katherine McPhee battled an eating disorder at one time, and that neither Marilyn Miller nor Marilyn Monroe was skinny. They were plump and shapely bottle blondes, and MM succumbed to a Hollywood makeover.

Marilyn Miller as brunette

One more item: the pilot for the show begins with McPhee singing Midwesterner Judy Garland’s signature song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Of course the romantic yearning these days is for stardom, which is not necessarily the same as fame. McPhee has a big voice, and I wonder if she is being promoted as another Judy Garland, whom she slightly resembles and perhaps imitates in her body movements. Is it only a coincidence that Judy Garland played Marilyn Miller in the 1946 MGM film, Till The Clouds Roll By, a movie whose chief theme is the supremacy of the “theater” over the whims of any individual, surely the ideology promoted by Smash. A nice collectivist touch that follows progressive ideology, such as the hopeful  “Look For The  Silver Lining,” Marilyn Miller’s most famous number.

There is really not much more to say about this musical, which I found compelling and well-acted despite the annoyingly weak book; anyone can see the conflict between traditional attachments and the bohemian lives of actors; Goethe laid it out in his contrasting Wilhelm Meister novels long ago. But anyone who expects music and lyrics of the quality of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim, Lerner and Loewe, or their antecedents in opera, operetta, or Gilbert and Sullivan, will be disappointed, for the music is at best, mediocre, signifying the general degeneration of middle class culture since the 1960s, and perhaps the decline of the singing actress with a large vocal range. (Though I must admit that I like McPhee’s singing and dancing. She does remind me of Judy Garland in a favorable way, and both were indebted to female black singers.)

Have we become a country of characters, over-identifying with fictional or fictionalized movie and television stars, whom we worship, neglecting our responsibilities to ourselves as striving, creative beings? Are we living our unique lives or are we hypnotized by the lives of others, fixated on “stars” and happily regressed so as to be ever more manipulated by celebrities who do not share our needs and interests? [Added 6-13-12: Everything I have written above can be applied to the better-written My Week With Marilyn. Michelle Williams, though slender, does a more convincing rendition of suffering Marilyn and she has the singing skills to be plausible.]

[Added Season two, as of 3-19-13]: The focus has shifted from rivalry over who is to play Marilyn Monroe to the ongoing debate in popular culture: “commercial theater” vs. “fringe”-type romantically defiant off-broadway theater. It is too soon to determine how the story will resolve the various triangles, but Katherine McPhee has returned with larger breasts, and there is a new love interest, indeed, a triangle between her, the director played by Jack Davenport (who so far has gone over to the Romantics), and the angst-ridden young offbeat genius played by Jeremy Jordan. The bad writing has not been amended, notwithstanding the addition of various guest stars designed to boost ratings. To one who grew up loving the musicals of the 20th century, with lyricists of the quality of Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Oscar  Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Yip  Harburg, and a slew of other artists, the deterioration in middle-class entertainment can only come as a shock and disappointment.

Internet sources consulted for this blog:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Miller. http://web.usi.edu/boneyard/miller.htm

http://www.squidoo.com/MarilynMiller?utm_source=google&utm_medium=imgres&utm_campaign=framebuster#module19718002

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresa_Rebeck

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe. (the latter quotes JFK “sweet and wholesome” public characterization of Marilyn’s notorious Happy Birthday song)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smash_(TV_series)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Shaiman, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Wittman  (life partners, previous hit Hairspray)

January 21, 2012

Huck Finn and the well-whipped child

cleansed edition of Huck FinnWe all know about the controversy about the use of offensive dialect in the writings of Mark Twain. This blog is not about the triumph of the language police, but about a deeper and more sinister subject: the inability to stand up to illegitimate authority. [For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/20/links-to-cormac-mccarthy-and-mark-twain-blogs/]

But first take a look at this teaching guide to one of the masterworks of American literature: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/teachers/huck/index.html.

This is one of many teaching guides on how to handle the “hand grenade” of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885). Here is a hipper one that gives a mini-biography of Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel became a major text for New Left literary critics. (In this essay, the story is told that Hemingway confronted Fiedler (the maverick critic who was the first to use the term postmodernism), over his reading of Huck Finn: http://www.bookforum.com/archive/sum_03/posnock.html). The issue for Hemingway was obviously manliness and Fiedler’s suggestions of androgyny and feminization in the American psyche.

Although Fiedler makes more of the homoeroticism of the relationship of Jim and Huck than I would, at least he addresses the retreat into Nature, a nature that is protective and nurturing, unlike the sadistic “Pap” (father of Huck) or the hypercritical, chatty Calvinist female relatives, upholders of slavery themselves, who drive Huck into primitivism.

I advise my readers to read Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Connecticut Yankee (1889) together, but the latter first. See also the passage from Yankee on poor white acquiescence in the institution of slavery that I quoted in https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/, for it is my hunch that 6th century Britain is a transposition of the antebellum South that Twain experienced as a boy, with the slave-owning classes analogous to the endless and irrational violence of the alliance between the aristocracy and the medieval Catholic Church—a force that, in Twain’s book, cannot be vanquished, even with modern technology, for men, with few exceptions, seek the traditional rule of abusive authority, not freedom.

The rest of this blog continues the theme of gender difference, with Twain (b. 1835), speaking through the poor white Huck, unable to break through the pervasive moral law existent in the slave states: that slavery was a positive good that uplifted savages: such was “civilization” in the slaveholding states. Huck’s is the lesson of the well-whipped child, a theme that pervades much of popular culture: that even as an adult, the rebel against illegitimate authority is too weak to overthrow the oppressor. The farthest that the rebellion may go is to identify with evil, with Satan, and thence to experience the depression that such an adventure into the dark side perhaps? necessarily? confers.

As the issue of manliness is not always discussed in the scholarly literature (as opposed to white racism), I shall quote from the two key chapters, 16 and 31, that reveal Huck’s moral prison, one from which he cannot escape even with wildly improbable plot devices.

[From Chapter 16. Huck hears Jim celebrating his imagined freedom if he gets to Cairo: “…He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife…and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

“It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t even dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, ‘Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.’ Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.”

[But then Jim rejoices:] “Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n’ for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free man, en I couldn’t even ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.” (pp 126-27)

[Huck is about to turn Jim into the hands of two slave-catchers who demand to know what is the color of the other man on the raft:] “I didn’t answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn’t man enough—hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says: ‘He’s white.’” [my emphasis]

Huck pretends to be a ghost

A man, in Huck’s imagination, obeys the law that disallows Jim belonging to himself. (But in the preceding chapter Huck had humbled himself before Jim, for his “mean tricks” that impelled Jim to reproach Huck for worrying him that Huck might have drowned during the great fog. “And I warn’t ever sorry for it [the apology] afterwards, neither.” Huck/Twain has actually acknowledged Jim as an equal, momentarily at least.)

Shortly after the interchange in chapter 16 (quoted above), Huck continues his self-examination and concludes that he would feel just as bad doing right (turning Jim over) as doing wrong (breaking the law), “and the wages is just the same.” A few pages later a steamboat capsizes the raft and Mark Twain puts down the manuscript for several years. (Henry Nash Smith says three years, relying on Walter Blair’s scholarship in reconstructing the composition of the ms.). After many chapters in which Jim leaves the narrative, the two runaways are reunited, and Huck, pretending to be Tom Sawyer, is comfortably lodged on the Phelps plantation (with Jim hiding on the raft nearby, then captured by Phelps), where his Southern conscience is once more goaded into a proposed action. This is where Huck unites with Satan as the only felt outcome for the well-whipped and indoctrinated child/man. Huck composes a letter to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson:

“Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.

“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happening so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell.” Huck then reminisces about their friendship, emphasizing Jim’s protectively maternal aspects, and utters the often quoted lines: “’All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.” (Ch. 31, p.278-279).

And is one of the wicked things, Huck’s collaborating with Tom Sawyer’s sadistic pranks during the concluding chapters, sadistic because Tom knew that Miss Watson had already freed Jim in her will? By what circuitous route does Huck move from a vow to saving Jim again, to allowing Tom Sawyer to control his actions, in effect, tormenting Jim, perhaps reminding the reader that Twain the author killed off Hank Morgan and his modernization project at the end of Yankee? Having bonded with perfect evil (Satan) in chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn, was this bond not the juice that enabled the writing of the Jacobin and Promethean Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? And if so, how could Twain’s next big book not have had a depressing and depressed denouement? We may be fascinated by bad boys, but they are not marriage material.

I do not know what punishment Mark Twain’s father meted out to his children, for the role of yelling or caning in early childhood and youth is rarely taken up in literary histories. We do know that Twain’s father was a slaveowner, an attorney and a judge who died when Samuel L. Clemens was only 11 years old, surely a trauma in itself. Twain mentions his father in Life on The Mississippi as follows: “My father was a justice of the peace, and I supposed he possessed the power of life and death over all men, and could hang anybody that offended him. This was distinction enough for me as a general thing; but the desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding, nevertheless.” (Ch. IV) In the novel, an unnamed judge sides with Huck’s Pap, returning Huck to certain death in his father’s hovel. I have written a very personal, speculative blog. One thing is for certain: Mark Twain was not the name given by the author’s parents. (For more on the Clemens household and slavery see http://www.literarytraveler.com/authors/terrell_dempsey_searching_for.aspx. )

June 12, 2011

Call Me Isabel (a reflection on “lying”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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