The Clare Spark Blog

February 14, 2015

Fifty Shades of Romantic Necrophilia

Lygeia and  her familiar

Lygeia and her familiar

Today is Valentine’s Day, 2-14-15, and the times are bad for romantic love, which is misunderstood by such culture critics as Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal, which devotes two pages to the subject, contrasting pop culture and high art, concluding that Beyoncé’s cynicism is worthy of emulation. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB20840515299319003486204580458140764862972. (Lee Siegel’s “The Truth About Romantic Love” 2-14-15.)

What no one, even most feminists are willing to examine is the ambivalent relations between adolescent and grown-up sons and their middle-aged mothers. For Freudian-derived attachment theory is out, having been thrown overboard by cognitive behavioral therapy. (https://clarespark.com/2015/02/08/steven-pinkers-reciprocal-altruism/. For evidence that the middle-aged mother is the target of S-M addicted males, see https://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/.)

Without the embarrassment of developmental psychology, it is easy to applaud the broad popularity of the just-released homage to sadomasochism, Fifty Shades of Grey, which has opened almost as enthusiastically as American Sniper. And for some critics, financial success is just fine, and then they may drop the subject without reflection. http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2015/02/14/box-office-fifty-shades-of-grey-spanks-spongebob-with-30m-friday/.

But even recognizing the [middle-aged woman] as the creature to be silenced, is not enough, for the remarkable popularity of the novel and the movie is susceptible to class analysis. How many shop-girls or working class women or house-bound wives are not dreaming of an ever more elusive upward mobility, personified in the black Knight to carry them off in a private plane or helicopter to a life of luxury, notwithstanding the bondage and humiliation, even death in life that is submissively endured in S-M sex. After all, didn’t Edgar Allan Poe write “Lygeia,” the epitome of romantic necrophilia, to be updated with Fox’s The Following?

And is not Linda Darnell’s double corset one of the most popular clicks on my website? (https://clarespark.com/2009/11/07/dream-girl/)

WSJ 019026

But perhaps the scariest image I have found today is in the Spring Fashion Magazine of the Wall Street Journal. The model is propped up against a painted tree (http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/trees/tgen/painting-tree-trunks-white.htm), thus allying her with the latest Nature-preserving identifications. But to me, she is yet another Lygeia, especially the come-hither gesture combined with the blood-red shoes. Is she an image of the male’s own death?

Wyeth: Spring 1978

Wyeth: Spring 1978

Gone is grandma’s lacey Valentine; in comes a new era of the femme fatale/male double, enticing though dead to the world.

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April 26, 2013

The television season goes Dark

The-following-posterI understand that television is not considered to be other than escapist entertainment, and not a business with pretensions to artiness or literariness, but there are many critics who treat its more upscale offerings with the reverence once reserved to Balzac (for instance see the indefatigable Terri Gross in her new interview with Matthew Weiner, creator of MAD MEN: in the part I heard she was insisting that Don Draper has a “death wish”).

As the 2012-2013 season draws to a close, I must say that I can’t remember a time when popular entertainment was as ideological driven or death-obsessed. I admit to not understanding the adolescent craze for vampires or zombies, though I have my suspicions of deranged right-wing Romanticism and/or the adolescent desire to irritate parents. But I do get the populist flavor, laced with morbidity, of the “better” television series, especially those directed to a more upscale, presumably educated audience.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not nostalgic for the television fare of the 1950s and 1960s, with its frequently inane glorification of the ordinary folksy American family, rural or urban. The material introduced in response to 1960s and 1970s uproars was critical, and though usually anti-American and anti-establishment, was at least well-written, brilliantly acted, and interesting to decode for its (typically populist) politics. Nor do I fail to detect the ideology in the theater popular when I was growing up: at least it was well meaning, brilliantly written, conceived, and performed—and relatively anti-racist.

But what to make of such paranoia-inducing recent offerings as the romantic necrophiliac THE FOLLOWING (internet gossip reports it renewed!), or the ongoing goriness in CRIMINAL MINDS, or the hatred of hedge fund managers profiting off evil drug companies as displayed in the last episode of PERSON OF INTEREST, or amoral rich people as were evident in DECEPTION, now in SCANDAL (the last episode particularly horrifying), MAD MEN, REVENGE, and even the apparently harmless and well-written THE GOOD WIFE, a love triangle that manages to mostly evade the possibly unparalleled corruption of  Democratic Chicago, while “Alicia” wavers between family and sex? (I have been watching reruns of the Dick Wolf generated LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT, and find the same targets, often Jews, who are either the perps, or who as doctors and lawyers are equally loathsome and corrupt. In one episode, “the Jewish mob” is identified as the most “vicious” of all: oh really?). Add to that the swipes at Mossad in the ever-popular NCIS, and you have the picture. Nouveaux riches and the government enforcers (cops, government regulators, other bureaucrats, CIA, etc.) whom the moneybags obviously control in their own depraved interest, are the chief subjects of the most watched television shows. The poster for THE FOLLOWING (illustrated) shows the dual character of those who serve “law and order.” “Order” for whom? is clearly implied as Bacon and Purefoy are halves of one whole, following Poe’s “William Wilson” in its doppelgänger conception, perhaps a major conceit in the imagination of television writers. And don’t be fooled by the poster for THE FOLLOWING. “Joe Collins” (James Purefoy) is clearly the protagonist, and he stepped out of character in the most recent episode to plug Green living. Why not Kevin Bacon, who barely appears in the series, and whose character is an alcoholic to boot?

Are there any shows with family values? So far, BLUE BLOODS takes the prize. Irreproachably Irish Catholic and upright, the patriarchal Reagan family holds together in contrast to the decadent cities it valiantly disciplines. Even THE MENTALIST is terror gothic in spirit, and clearly plays on fears of the French Revolution, while teasing its faithful viewers that “Patrick Jane” is actually serial killer Red John, rather than someone likely to be very high up in the government. It too is paranoia inducing. Shame on you Bruno Heller, who should know better.

And SMASH, the backstage story of a Broadway musical, will not likely be renewed, while its writing and music to these ears are downright embarrassing. What a hollow victory for hip movement culture, with its glorification of the ever-misunderstood and pathetic Marilyn Monroe.  On to off-Broadway, inter-racial understanding, and the offbeat rock musical and heterosexual and homosexual pairing off. On television, racism/miscegenation has disappeared if you sing and dance well enough. Perhaps the same thing can be said for new Broadway shows, either PC or living off the bones of its ancestors.

Meanwhile, few in show business pay attention to education reform, the illicit power of the teachers unions, and their relentless, media-supported attempts to undermine the educations of real black and brown children in urban ghettoes and elsewhere. Try to find a decent public school in NYC or Los Angeles, homes of those who write and produce the mindless (though technically advanced) shows I have listed above.

Now tell me the condition of our urban schools is not racist in the extreme. The better historians lament the world wide indifference as the Holocaust and other horrors proceeded in the 1930s and 1940s, while today the hippest among us wallow in gonzo ressentiment, apocalypse, the undead, blood and gore. Who is indifferent now? Should we blame the audience, who allegedly want this polluted fare?

Is the great American experiment going down? If popular culture is any indication, the answer is “you betcha.” Who needs a Fifth Column or other demonic forces when you have the entertainment industry?

[I have blogged about most of the tv shows mentioned here and others: see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/16/index-to-blogs-on-popular-tv-shows/.]

good wife cast pic chris noth 2 season 2

March 30, 2013

Philip Roth, The Following, and Identification with the Aggressor

Sabbaths_theaterI raised this issue after the third season of HBO’s In Treatment, (See https://clarespark.com/2010/12/12/hbo%e2%80%99s-in-treatment-and-boardwalk-empire/, and continued my theme in https://clarespark.com/2013/01/26/decoding-call-me-ishmael-and-the-following/. After having seen the PBS American Masters “unmasking” of novelist Philip Roth (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/philip-roth/film-philip-roth-unmasked/2467/) and noticing a representation of the devil on the cover of the 1995 National Book Award winner Sabbath’s Theater (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath’s_Theater), a novel about sex, adultery, and suicide, and roughly based on the life of artist R. J. Kitaj (who was indeed a suicide at age 75), I thought it was time to write a very short blog on the attraction to the demonic, a theme usually tossed off as wayward Romanticism, and yet devil worship and sadism pervade popular and high culture alike. (Think of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), that made his reputation in Europe and prompted many suicides.)

Why is such identification with the demonic so prevalent? Bill O’Reilly interviewed Christopher Ruddy, a Catholic professor of theology, and Rabbi Aryeh Spero, who is famous on the Right for defending America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage.” O’Reilly seemed surprised to learn that Jews have no conception of the Devil as an independent force in the universe, looking rather to inborn instincts at odds with one another: good versus evil. After pushing him, O’Reilly finally got the Rabbi to declare that there would indeed be heavenly rewards or punishment, thus bringing Judaism in line with the Catholicism that O’Reilly vigorously defends. (So much for the unbridgeable gap between Judaism and Christianity, not a popular theme these days.)

But that gap is not the subject of this blog. Rather, I want to focus on the popularity of gangsters and other rebels against such admonitions as “thou shalt not murder.”

Although it was never explicitly addressed in the PBS documentary, though the first part did dwell at some length on Roth’s middle class parents, we do learn that 1. His father expected him to be a lawyer; and 2. Before the release of the raunchy Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel that made Roth not only famous but financially independent, he “prepared” his parents for the shock of the content matter, reassuring them that the parents in the novel bore no resemblance to themselves, but were fiction. From the documentary, we might infer that Roth never separated from his parents, was afraid of their rejection, and has maintained a punitive, puritanical superego to this day. (Look at his home in Connecticut: it is a model of 17th century puritan architecture.) I would not be surprised if Roth takes his own life now that he has retired from writing, for he dreads a biography, as he made clear in the PBS piece.

PHILIP ROTH

How to explain this bad boy of literature and the fascination he exerts on millions of liberal readers? I have often mentioned authoritarian parenting on prior blogs. There are many ways to be authoritarian, ranging from physical abuse, incest, clinging, or abandonment to aggressive siblings or schoolmates, on to subtle or overt disapproval of the path taken by one’s children. Perhaps they marry out of the faith or “race,” perhaps they are bisexual or gay, perhaps they go native by choosing a life of bohemian lawlessness over middle-class respectability. Or in Roth’s case, perhaps some of the above, but also what if they write stories hostile to many Jews, literally taunting religious, unassimilated Jews in such stories as “The Defender of the Faith,” “The Conversion of the Jews” (published in Goodbye Columbus, 1959) or the novel Operation Shylock (1993) in which the protagonist and his double share the same anti-Zionist narrative of the founding of Israel and its subsequent history. In the PBS documentary, Roth asserts that he is not a Jewish writer at all (as many consider him to be), but an “American” writer.

Roth Conn

Finally, I get to my argument: as any clinical psychologist or psychoanalyst or social worker will tell you, a defense against the (usually repressed) rage felt against the cruel or confusing* parent or parents who may be internalized in the omnipresent superego, is to identify with the aggressor (some people call this the Stockholm Syndrome). By becoming the parent/perpetrator (even if only imaginatively), we avoid the stigma of victim and avoid intolerable feelings of helplessness, the dread of falling that we experienced as dependent infants or toddlers. (This is the profile of the sadomasochist, who, in my experience as a student of sadomasochism, harbors rage against the Mother who asks her son for unattainable perfection in a society replete with cognitive dissonance.)

I am not a Roth scholar; I have read many of his books, but not nearly all of them, and have enjoyed his writing, especially in American Pastoral and The Human Stain. Whatever I write here about him, is what I caught from the PBS documentary, and my ongoing study of the irresistible demonic in popular and high culture.

*I have not mentioned mixed messages and double binds that liberal parents often inflict (See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/10/columbia-u-s-double-bind-october-1917/). Roth mentions that his family was generally “left-of center,” implying that some were communists. But if he harbors communist sympathies, he is surely a Popular Front red, for FDR rescues the USA from Lindbergh’s fascism in The Plot Against America (2004). This novel is the closest he will get to the possible extra-parental traumas of his youth: the Great Depression, the second world war, and the (supposedly invisible) Holocaust. None of that is in the PBS special. [POSTSCRIPT. Since writing this blog, I have read Sabbath’s Theater, and admire it more than words can express. It is Roth’s masterpiece, and wonderfully funny and trenchant. Of all his contemporaries, he has made the best use of Freud that I  have yet encountered, and the protagonist’s traumas lay exposed for all to see.]

Kitaj: Where the railroad meets the sea

Kitaj: Where the railroad meets the sea

January 26, 2013

Decoding “Call me Ishmael” and The Following

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

The new Fox horror-thriller series The Following has elicited mixed reviews, for instance though The Huffington Post welcomes the new arrival, a Los Angeles Times review is annoyed that the use of Edgar Allen Poe’s oeuvre is misleading, for Poe unambiguously took the side of detectives, not criminals. (http://www.latimes.com/features/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-woe-is-poe-the-tv-show-the-following-is-a-horror-20130121,0,3709889.story).  But critic Carolyn Kellog distorts Poe’s writing, which, as a whole, takes a strong stand against the French Revolution, the fearsome guillotine (“The Pit and the Pendulum”?) and the entrance of mass politics upon the world scene, a locale that was formerly monopolized by aristocrats, Kings, and the Church. I have argued elsewhere that there is a strong Tory subtext to other popular detective television shows, binding autodidact, somewhat unstable detectives such as Bobby Goren (Law and Order Criminal Intent) or Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) to serial killers such as “Nicole Wallace” or “Red John.” (In both these series, Moby-Dick and the obsessive monomaniac Captain Ahab are frequently mentioned.)  In a related narrative, social psychologists and other academic liberals associated with the Roosevelt administration blamed mass murderer Adolf Hitler on mass politics and the deployment of propaganda through the burgeoning mass media. If my analysis is correct, then the “Hollywood liberals” who dominate movies and television writing are crypto-Tories and antidemocrats, notwithstanding their populist love for “the People” whom they defend against the depredations of finance capital and its offshoots in the “Nazi” Republican Party.

In the following excerpt from a draft of my book Hunting Captain Ahab, I mentioned Poe’s story “William Wilson”. I could have added his lesser known story “The Man of the Crowd” (a figure of the death-dealing Romantic Wandering Jew and a symbol of the revolutionary mob). This excerpt starts with the last words of the allegorical novel that preceded Moby-Dick, narrated by a character Melville named “Taji.”

[ms. excerpt:] Melville’s Mardi concludes with his salute to Milton and an acknowledgment of their shared peril, dove-like, god-like, “brooding on the vast abyss.” Taji has “seized the helm” with “eternity…in his eye.”

“Now I am my soul’s own emperor; and my first act is abdication! Hail! realm of shades!”–and turning my prow into the racing tide, which seized me like a hand omnipotent, I darted through.

Churned in foam, that outer ocean lashed the clouds; and straight in my white wake, headlong dashed a shallop, three fixed specters leaning o’er its prow: three arrows poising. And thus, pursuers and pursued flew on, over an endless sea.[end Mardi excerpt]

Melville’s Satanic self-assertion as writer and social critic was linked to ambivalent feelings about departed relatives whose deaths he imagined his (and their) flaws had hastened.  These were flaws he associated with Hebraic Puritans, the bad Jews whom Tories claimed had delivered the world-destroying materialist epistemology.  In his Tory mood, the “rebel senses” were the keys that unlocked state secrets to over-reaching “citizen-kings.” Father Mapple’s Sermon instructed Ahab; Taji, Mapple, and Ahab were repudiated by Ishmael.  Two incompatible definitions of “balance” were at odds: for Ishmael, the lesson of Narcissus was the key to it all.

“Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson.”

A depressed young man with a classical education, well-born but fallen on hard times, narrates the tale of a mad whale hunt from the vantage point of the lone survivor.  His first words, “Call me Ishmael” may be a rectification of the too deferential opening sentence of Poe’s “William Wilson,” the story of a dissipated student and his stalking conscience whom he finally stabs in the mirror, thus destroying himself.  Since Ishmael tells us at once that the legend of Narcissus is “the key to it all,” the reader may sense he is not reading the commonplace tale of a White Whale and his pursuers, but a work with literary ambitions and mythic resonances. And since the bargain between Faust and the devil is also discussed, and since Ahab instructs his first mate that the whale hunt is an allegory (Ahab to Starbuck: “Hark ye, the little lower layer,”) the reader might surmise that nothing that transpires is to be taken as a literal representation, that the unclassifiable composition has something to do with the search for knowledge in the modern world at a time of waning upper-class authority and the not unrelated encounter with non-Western societies.

[Poe:]  What say of it?  What say [of] CONSCIENCE grim.  That spectre in my path?  (Epigraph to Poe’s “William Wilson,” publ. 1839) [end, ms. excerpt]

FabularFilms_WilliamWilson

We are left with a looming question: What persons and what institutions determine the precise content of our superegos? And what institutions and practices have so weakened our “consciences” that serial killers and other psychopaths/sociopaths pick up a weapon and murder their families and/or their surrogates? Why does the auxiliary television material to THE FOLLOWING advertise “a love story” between the detective (played by Kevin Bacon) and the serial killer (played by James Purefoy)? Is Poe’s “William Wilson” more timely than ever? Hint: the answer will not be found in blaming modernity, the internet, public education,  and its alleged narcissistic and Faustian characters. (On the perils of the internet, see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/. The internet as a source of pathology was briefly mentioned in the second episode of THE FOLLOWING. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/17/moderate-men-and-dirty-jews-part-two/, on the general ignorance even among intellectuals regarding antisemitism and its dynamics.)


March 16, 2012

Index to blogs on popular tv shows

Dick Wolf and Judith Light

I haven’t commented on all the crime shows. It is enough to say that we are to believe that good cops will eventually triumph over bad cops, and that most criminals are tracked down and punished. I.e., the State is looking out for you and me, with all the tools that modern science (including profiling) can muster. Law and Order: Criminal Intent (not analyzed here) adds a flourish: the Vincent D’Onofrio character is often dissatisfied with normal procedures, co-opts Freud, and seemingly obeys a higher (more compassionate) law.

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/15/the-christianization-of-ziva-david-ncis/

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/02/roman-polanski-and-his-critics/

https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/

https://clarespark.com/2010/10/24/mad-men-and-the-jewish-problem/

https://clarespark.com/2010/12/12/hbo%e2%80%99s-in-treatment-and-boardwalk-empire/

https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/

https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/

https://clarespark.com/2011/07/07/network-and-its-offspring/

https://clarespark.com/2012/02/04/blue-bloods-freud-trauma-911/

https://clarespark.com/2012/02/09/glee-goes-la-raza/

https://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/

https://clarespark.com/2012/06/26/aaron-sorkins-scottish-blood/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/03/andy-griffiths-greatest-performance/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/23/homeland-and-the-idea-of-the-fifth-column/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/29/girls-or-the-new-lost-generation/

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/14/is-there-a-culture-of-violence/

https://clarespark.com/2013/01/26/decoding-call-me-ishmael-and-the-following/ (Read this first)

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/25/potus-michelle-and-the-end-of-the-democratic-republic/

https://clarespark.com/2013/04/26/the-television-season-goes-dark/

https://clarespark.com/2013/05/27/smash-the-perfect-liberal-backstage-musical/

https://clarespark.com/2013/06/20/james-gandolfini-as-tony-soprano/

https://clarespark.com/2013/09/22/the-newsroom-season-two/

https://clarespark.com/2014/03/24/the-good-wife-and-bad-timing/

https://clarespark.com/2014/06/25/penny-dreadfuls-sinister-significance/

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