The Clare Spark Blog

July 1, 2014

The Rightist Culture War Strategy Won’t Work

culture-war1It is not surprising that persons who make their living in publishing or writing on behalf of conservative or libertarian causes would envision “culture” as the battleground on which to halt the slide toward “fascism” or “totalitarianism” or “statism” or whatever you want to call the direction of the Democratic Party. The latest to enter the fray is publisher Adam Bellow, son of the illustrious Saul Bellow. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/381419/let-your-right-brain-run-free-adam-bellow. (For my one and only blog on Saul Bellow see https://clarespark.com/2011/11/12/the-woman-question-in-saul-bellows-herzog/.)

Leaving aside for the moment, whether there is a single, coherent right wing culture to spawn artists, let me ask some related questions: Do artists and filmmakers make revolutions in human relationships, or do material factors that are often avoided, put down, or erased by mystical science-hating organic conservatives? For these persons often view themselves as postmodernists or moderates or entirely alienated anarchists.

Think about the onset of modernity in the West for a moment. What factors enabled the elevated status of women? Novels and tracts by soi-disant feminists, or the Industrial Revolution that removed patriarchs from the home, hence raising the status of the women who were now, by default, more in charge of socializing children and supported by John Locke’s empiricist idea of the tabula rasa (i.e., by the outcome of experience and study on our judgments, as opposed to Plato’s innate ideas and shadows on caves)?

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As for the sexual revolution, how can we discount the effect of “the pill” that prevented unwanted pregnancies and enabled greater freedom in sexual pleasure for both partners? Or do we want movies that take us back to the good old days when women were entirely subservient to husbands and children, lived for the family alone, and endured endless pregnancies? (See Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927): her portrait of “Mrs. Ramsay.”)

It is true that the mass media have had a great effect publicizing social movements, but close examination of their politics reveals a motion toward populism, not social transformation in human relationships that would lead to wider acceptance of free markets, the end of racism and sexism, and to an aversion to overregulation by the State. Populists are not leftists, but petit-bourgeois radicals angry at “elites” (perhaps stand-ins for authoritarian parents). Such resentment may be found in much of the conservative movement, currently in an uproar over “progressives” in disguise as “RINOS.”

No culture produces so many geniuses that we can simply call out brilliant artists and/or critics who can move mountains and change consciousness to the degree required by our current polarization and sense of injustice on both sides of the great divide.

But we can read good literature from many sources to our children, and we can teach them to extract the messages contained in specific texts. The same goes for music and art. That is what European and American “elites” did, and they ended up ruling the world, enhancing life for the billions, and continuing to ask the big, still unsolved questions. If we want to let “the right brain run free,” we have still to look for excellence in whatever genre or artist we can find. Forget political correctness on both left and right: Study how individual works of art work on us to get us thinking and moving again.

Will satire and spleen of the sort recommended by Adam Bellow and other culture warriors change hearts and minds on the liberal Left? Or will it be taken as yet more agitprop and bad faith emanating from reactionaries?

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May 18, 2013

Friendship in the era of anti-Freud

Paul Prud'hon, 1793

Paul Prud’hon, 1793

The publication today of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 manual, reminds us that insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies alike have no interest in Freud’s “talking cure”—which simply meant that relief from psychogenic symptoms could be alleviated by telling a neutral party (the psychoanalyst) in a protected, safe (confidential) setting about the traumas and family relationships of early childhood up to the present; in the case of Freudian therapy, such memories were usually repressed but dredged up through free association and transference, in which the analyst was the recipient of feelings about the parent that gradually, under the guidance of the analyst, were traced back to the family of origin. Presumably psychogenic symptoms would abate.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talking_cure.)

The un-ambivalently bourgeois Freud and his methods are now not only under attack by postmodernists and Foucauldians, but by his old enemies, those who believe that human suffering is inevitable in this, the Devil’s realm, and that freedom from what are now deemed to be “personality disorders” can at best be alleviated with pills and behavioral cognitive therapy, a form of short-term “affordable” therapy that ostensibly rewires the brain. (It is derived from Behaviorism, and was seen as torture in Clockwork Orange.)

While I was briefly teaching at California Institute of the Arts, a form of therapy called “Re-evaluation Counseling” was in vogue and several marriages broke up as a result, for it was my theory at least that partners in “co-counseling” (never married to each other) had never experienced being listened to for one hour as they brought up troubling experiences from their past. Such rare attention to old troubles was an impetus to romantic love (as I speculated). (On this method and its origin, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re-evaluation_Counseling.)

Which brings me to the subject of this blog: how even one intimate, strictly confidential friendship can partly substitute for the loss of Freud and his methods.

First, despite the romanticizing of the nuclear family by politicians and churches, the family of origin is a hotbed of potential trauma that can haunt the adult throughout life, poisoning all relationships and causing chronic illness. I have no doubt that rivalries for the favor of either Mother or Father are real, however out of fashion “Freudians” may be. But we must bury such rivalries (with either parent, or with siblings) for the sake of the “family unity” that is favored by demagogues of every stripe.  I refer not only to Oedipal feelings or to “the Elektra complex” but to the fierce resentments inflicted through sibling rivalry. Our feelings toward parents and siblings, however, must remain “pure” and unambivalent, for ambivalence is a no-no as we celebrate Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or the birthdays of childhood rivals whom we are not permitted to resent, even as they displaced us or bullied us in untold and/or repressed family dramas. (For more on this, see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/17/bondage-and-the-family/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/01/26/obama-and-the-rhetoric-of-the-political-family/.)

How can friendship alleviate these forbidden, often sick-making feelings? My first advice is not to expect family members to substitute for the undivided attention of a friend. Parents and siblings are the last persons who want to hear about their lack of parenting skills or other deficiencies, some structural and not their fault at all.

Second, the friend must be one who has been tested through time not to gossip and to keep confidences; also to be non-judgmental about the expression of negative feelings. Such a person will presumably  have enough self-knowledge to be an appropriate recipient of such personal confidences and not to be freaked out.

If we are so unlucky not to have such a buddy, then do what I do: cuddle up to the great fiction writers and poets. Most of them were Freud’s inspiration too, as he freely admitted. Besides the Greek dramatists, many of the greatest contemporary novelists of the last two centuries were such resources, whatever their politics. Personal favorites of mine are Benjamin Disraeli, Herman Melville, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. Melville, for instance, threw his inner feelings and ambivalence wide open for all readers to witness, to mull over, and to apply to one’s own closest attachments.

Above all, however, read the post-Freudian attachment theorists: you won’t find many feminists recommending them, for they  emphasize the danger of careless separations between mothers and infants: John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott and Margaret Mahler. (For my summary of how hasty maternal separation from infants and small children can cause panic attacks and separation anxiety, see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/. For my blogs on Freud and anti-Freudians see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/16/blogs-on-freud-and-anti-freudians/. For an even more negative view of DSM-5 than mine see http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578050-single-book-has-come-dominate-psychiatry-dangerous-shrink-wrapping?fsrc=scn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fpe%2Fshrinkwrapping.)

Panic Attack George Grie

Panic Attack George Grie

November 12, 2011

The Woman Question in Saul Bellow’s Herzog

Saul Bellow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Bellow

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