YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 28, 2013

Hatred and sanity

Nazi ad for Der ewige Jude

Nazi ad for Der ewige Jude

Despite the fact that Psalms 97:10 adjures the faithful “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!” (Tanakh), I’m writing this blog because a dispute broke out on a friend’s FB page, regarding whether the emotion of “hate” was always to be detested and repressed, or whether it was the sane response to a world spinning out of control: authoritarian, death-obsessed, and failing. I was the “hater” who was stigmatized. So I’m writing this blog to defend not only myself but Philip Roth’s character “Mickey Sabbath” in his 1995 novel SABBATH’S THEATER, a righteous hater if there ever was one. Call Mickey crazy if you prefer: I call him and his creator genius artists, with out-of-bounds imaginations that are unsurpassed.

I laid out the longstanding antagonism between “Christian” love and “Jewish” hate here: https://clarespark.com/2010/08/15/nazis-exhibit-der-ewige-jude-1937/. I will quote the most relevant paragraph now to illustrate the “binary opposite” that any historian should recognize; the subject was journalist Andrew Sharf’s characterization of “the Eternal Jew” as neutral, not derogatory:

No European myth is benign or even neutral with regard to Jews or to the liberal values that Andrew Sharf wants to defend, nor can it be otherwise. All Jews, including the “eternal” ones, are “bad”; the antithesis of Christian and Jew corresponds to the antipodes of Christian [organic] conservatism* and Jewish [classical] liberalism: (heartfelt) mysticism and (heartless) science, trust and withering skepticism, loyalty and betrayal, community and mob, busy bee and parasite, garden and wasteland. “Good Jews” like Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Cumberland’s Sheva, Walker’s Schechem, and Dickens’ Riah who appeared in the humanitarian literature of the late eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth century were good only because they were more Christian than the bourgeois Christians who were behaving like Shylock and Fagin; capitalism purged of its Judas red-beards would presumably lose its heartless and exploitative character. Christian landlords would never evict a tenant, Christian bankers would never foreclose a mortgage: this demented idea is fundamental to the völkisch revolution of Nazism,[2] but was not their invention. Nazi anti-Semitism, then, was only partly about the considerable material advantages in expropriating Jewish property and expelling Jewish rivals: Nazis, to maintain their credibility as redeemers and protectors, would have to plunge a stake in the heart of the “demon Thought” (to use Byron’s expression). For the antifascist critical mind is not found in a guilt-ridden Adam shrinking from conflict with illegitimate authority or from the perception of other irreconcilable conflicts. Instead, the anti-Semitic/ anti-intellectual mind anxiously mystifies class and gender antagonisms by positing (an unattainable) harmony as “normal.” Brandishing images of solidarity, the fascist bonds people only to “romance” in a false utopia necessarily maintained through deceit, terror and catharsis.

I was born into a non-observant Jewish family: all my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most of my childhood was spent following my adored father-the-doctor around the US as he ran various pathology laboratories for the U.S. Army in which he served as a captain (after the war, he told me resentfully about the antisemitism he encountered). I was usually the only Jewish kid in my eight public schools in Texas, Missouri, California, then in Coney Island and Elmhurst Queens. Nothwithstanding the lack of intellectuality in my immediate family, I was never indoctrinated one way or another to either hate being “Jewish” or to hate the invariably white Christians in my immediate environs. Not long before she died, my mother Betty Spark asked me, were I to do it over again, would I choose being Jewish. (This from another secular Jew.) I said of course, and thought to myself today, “I only wish I had learned Yiddish for its spectacular vocabulary of derision,” a language my mother spoke and understood, but had not bothered to teach me.

My family ca. 1942

My family ca. 1942

I’ll say this about my sort of Jewish Mother: she advised me never to carry a grudge; i.e., never to become a hater. As the daughter of a doctor, I have diagnosed many “haters” whose anger was turned against themselves, leading to ulcers and worse. I take after Betty in this respect, and cling to those qualities in myself that make me a better warrior and a wiser mother and grandmother. Some think of me as cold, detached, and male-identified.

When I, as a citizen and a historian, see politicians, lackey journalists, schoolteachers, professors, former lefty friends, Pacifica radio, and millions of quacks, abuse their powers by mis-educating other people, I believe that a form of “hatred” is the only rational response. That does not mean that I am impervious to the power of old attachments: I remain fond of many who no longer speak to me. It also does not mean that I have succumbed to Christian forgiveness. I don’t believe in forgiveness in all cases, though I do not oppose those who are more “charitable” than I. I prefer repentance, self-understanding, and reparations. (My observant son-in-law tells me that Jews are required to ask for forgiveness for humiliating slights three times. If the victim refuses to forgive, then the Jew may hold on to his anger. If thievery or violence are involved, then one goes to the law.)

Put me in a box with Captain Ahab, a character who is almost always wildly misread for ideological reasons (see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/12/preface-to-second-edition-of-hunting-captain-ahab/). We are connoisseurs of revenge. We are warriors against all forms of evil, especially arbitrary, duplicitous authority that diminishes the creativity of individuals. If that makes me a jerk with both a ramaging Id and a Hebraic puritan superego,  and, hence, a bit mad, so be it. I stand with Herman Melville, Philip Roth, and bless his crazy heart, “Mickey Sabbath,” a Jew I can understand.

[For earlier blogs on the problem of evil, see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, or https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.]

[Note on the Nazi poster advertising the “show” that 1. this is unmistakably the Wandering Jew of medieval myth, then resuscitated during the Reformation; and 2. Nazi ideology held Jews responsible for bringing communism to Germany. Anticommunism was the chief factor that bound Hitler to the German people. The Wandering Jew myth had nothing to do with communism, which did not exist when the myth was invented, though some trace it to the New Testament.]

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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

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.)


May 24, 2012

Curiosity and the femme fatale/Jew

Infinite Zombie via Matt Fish?

Infinite Zombie via Matt Fish?

May 21, 2012, the 8th season of the Fox TV production of House, starring British actor Hugh Laurie, wrapped up, amidst much commentary that the genius diagnostician Gregory House, was not only drawn from Sherlock Holmes, but, like Doyle’s creation, was interested less in people than in solving puzzles. Such intense curiosity, I suggest, is continuous with ancient imprecations against the unleased human passion for knowledge. Prying into the secrets of upper-class authority, ostensibly a departure from the bliss of human “community,” is taken to be the sin of our First Parents that sent them into a world of toil and death. John Milton, a radical puritan, was a heretic whose notion of the Fortunate Fall was off limits, apparently even to the current generation of radicals, including the New Leftists of Verso Books. In the mid-1990s, I was politely ordered by my editor to drop my chapter on Milton and those of his Tory contemporaries and their spawn, who stigmatized “Satanic” curiosity that would “trace  the wayes/ Of highest Agents, deemd however wise,” even though Herman Melville had marked and commented provocatively upon this and similar passages from Paradise Lost,  Book 9 in his own copy, a volume sequestered by a party or parties unknown until 1984.

David Shore, the Canadian creator of House, is not a doctor himself, but a lawyer, perhaps one who has internalized the lesson of Eve and the serpent, and thus dutifully followed the Tory narrative warning of untrammeled curiosity and the thirst for knowledge that sunk my chances of publishing with Verso Books, for I refused to drop the chapter that explained why Captain Ahab’s passion for finding truth had to be thwarted by the chief Melville revivers of the interwar period in the 20th century, a period that also witnessed the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum along social democratic (progressive) lines. ( Nor did I puff F. O. Matthiessen or Lewis Mumford, as demanded.) I trust that readers of my blogs will have seen an abundance of Platonic “noble lies” perpetuated by the “moderate” men tracked throughout the website.)

I doubt that many young readers will slog their way through Melville’s masterpiece, but the character of Captain Ahab is now marshalled by anyone and everyone in the “consciousness industry” as a tyrant, arch-imperialist and terrorist, to be contrasted with the “survivor” Ishmael, whose understanding of human connectedness allows him to warn us of Ahab’s hubris, and lonely death. Indeed, it is de rigeur to mention Captain Ahab unfavorably, unless you are associated with the demonic, for instance the characters of Bobby Oren in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, or Patrick Jane, in The Mentalist. During the Melville Revival of the 1920s and 1930s, Ahab was drawn as either HM himself, a romantic artist, or as tragic hero. The switch to Ahab as Hitlerian occurred about 1939, and has held firm ever since.

Mead Schaeffer’s Ahab

Eventually, I did find a publisher for my book (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, Kent State UP, 2001, paperback rev.edition 2006), and here is a part of the introduction from the chapter that the Verso New Leftists declared not their cup of tea.

[“The Modern Artist as Red Specter: ‘an irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress'”:]

While writing Moby-Dick, Melville confided to Hawthorne that “all my books are botches,” in this instance blaming the market. Was the author in control of Ahab’s slides from Miltonic modern artist to [his deceased older brother] Gansevoort’s war-hawk? The characters Ahab, Isabel and Margoth et al are variants of the Romantic Wandering Jew: representations of historical memory, the critical intellect, and radical political will that Melville would by turns hug or annihilate; the erasure of dissent, however, would not remain invisible; the red specter inevitably returned either to energize/haunt his efforts at self-understanding, or to taunt his capitulations to illegitimate authority for the sake of his overburdened family: in his state of perplexity, “none felt how the leveller pines.” Aided by Melville’s newly-uncovered annotations to Paradise Lost, I have argued that the virtually canonical “Left” reading of Ahab as an anticipation of Hitler slanders Ahab, and ultimately Melville; rather, Ahab is a creature of the radical Enlightenment, partly masked by the author[i] and misread by the narrator, a decayed patrician.

In previous pages I gathered excerpts from Moby-Dick to contrast Ahab’s self-understanding with Ishmael’s anxious portraiture. Ahab’s project both to demystify duplicitous authority and unlock the secrets of nature (even his own) is frequently described with metaphors suggesting the inexorable drive of the steam engine: railroading Ahab’s lunges toward the whole truth, “hit or miss,” are expressed in images of digging, stabbing, piercing, and striking through masks; however, it does not follow that the whale hunt must be a microcosm of industrial society desanctifying and degrading nature, or that Ahab’s curiosity is necessarily sadistic, an expression of pride, self-gratification and separation from the human community, as William Blake or other corporatists would have seen it.[ii]

Arshile Gorky, 1944

Of course, Melville’s churning tableaux roll in the perilous conditions of labor; but the demonic character that bathes the narrative and Ahab with a blinding charisma is the invention of the Carlylean Ishmael, for whom the insatiable curiosity of the lower orders evokes the vindictiveness of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and fantasies of strangulation. Parallel passages from Pierre have supported my contention that Ahab, like Pierre, is that “something unmanageable” in his creator.[iii]

In this chapter I continue my examination of Hebraic radical puritanism as imagined and transmitted by antidemocrats, proposing that Melville, like his modernist predecessor Milton, either concealed his sympathies with the materialists or vacillated in his identification with their supposedly corrosive politics. The late seventeenth-century poet Dryden and the eighteenth-century historian and philosopher David Hume elaborated Tory portraits of the radical puritans as destructive primitives likened to ancient Hebrews: it is the admixture of (Jewish) fanatical religion and politics that creates an irrational political culture. Nineteenth-century conservatives cured left Romantics such as the Chartists, Melville, and themselves; like Thomas Carlyle and Melville’s relatives they adopted the Christian conversion narrative, moving adolescent (Hebraic) Byron out and upward to socially responsible Goethe. Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (a founding text of Christian Socialism) is the literary example that charts this transformation. Charles Francis Adams’s account of the Antinomian controversy (1636-38) types the New England spirit as essentially importunate and Hebraic. An English Carlylean’s 1924 essay on Byron completes the gallery of trapped Anglo-American conservatives, force-fed and held to knowledge, beating down their own deliciously unruly impulses.

The criteria for naturalistic literature proposed by 1930s radical liberals summon Hawthorne’s red specters. Ahab’s immediate precursor was Hawthorne’s “Virtuoso”–the heartless Wandering Jew as archivist, historical memory, and genius. Ahab and his cannibal crew may be seen as representations of modern art-making, revolutionary puritanism, and mass politics (cubistically developed): romantically decadent activities for Tories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for Hawthorne in the 1840s, and for neo-classicizing conservatives after the Bolshevik triumph in 1917. Organic conservatives are still operating upon (Hebraic) hot heads and cold hearts; distinguished professors Henry Farnham May and Richard Brodhead allude to the persistent Hebraic strain in American culture. I begin with some snapshots of the disappearing center, crumpled by bad Jews and other rebel angels.

Patrick Stewart Ahab

[Ishmael:] I was struck with the singular posture he maintained. Upon each side of the Pequod’s quarter deck, and pretty close to the mizen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow. There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say ought to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye. And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe (124).

 [Jay Leyda’s high school notes on “The Bible”:] a. Made English Puritanism 1.Puritan tradition fostered in the English and American people most of the best and most distinctive qualities. b. Inspired the poetry of Milton and the prose allegory of Bunyan. c. Gave Cromwell and the Pilgrim Fathers that which made them honourable, stead-fast, and self-reliant d. Has had direct influence on the English language and thought for 1. Has influenced the great Victorian writers 2. Men so diverse as Emerson and Whitman came under its spell. 3. Abraham Lincoln a genius in statecraft and speech was essentially a man of one Book–the Bible. 4. For two centuries it has been the source of Anglo-Saxon idealism. 5. It has shaped the English language. 6. It has been the supreme spiritually creative force in the civilization of the British Empire and the American Commonwealth…William Tyndale’s translations…sought to serve the common people. [iv]

[John Crowe Ransom to Allen Tate, Independence Day, 1929:] Satan is the Hebrew Prometheus and so conceived is Milton’s P.L.–he is Lucifer the Spirit of the Renaissance, the Zeitgeist of Milton’s own age of science, very boldly displayed and only rejected after a proper hesitation. But then Jesus is Lucifer again….[v]

For Thomas Hobbes (1651), curiosity was not an aid to reason, but an indomitable passion of the mind that could overpower and displace the less troublesome pleasures of food and sex:

Desire to know why, and how, is CURIOSITY; such as is in no living creature but Man; so that Man is distinguished, not onely by his reason; but also by this singular Passion from other Animals; in whom the appetite of food, and other pleasures of Sense, by praedominance, take away the care of knowing causes; which is a Lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continuall and indefatigable generation of Knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnall Pleasure.[vi]

In 1659 “Committees of the Good Old Cause” were virtuous vampires: “This Dragon it was and a monstrous Beast,/ With fourty or fifty heads at least,/ And still as this Dragon drank down Blood/ Those heads would wag and cry “good-good-good!”[vii] Not surprisingly, the same tumescent Heads exasperated Dryden in Absolom and Achitophel:

The Jews, a Headstrong, Moody, Murm’ring race,

As ever tri’d the’extent and stretch of grace;

God’s pampered People, whom, debauch’d with ease,

No King could govern, nor no God could please;

(God they had tri’d of every shape and size,

That God-smiths would produce, or Priests devise:)

These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,

Began to dream they wanted liberty;

And when no rule, no president was found

Of men, by Laws less circumscrib’d and bound,

They led their wild desires to Woods and Caves,

And thought that all but Savages were Slaves.[viii]

Similarly, the moderately moral philosopher Thomas Morgan advised his countrymen to cherchez la femme fatale:

…this wretched, insufferable Scheme of Superstition and false Religion, as it made Multitudes of Bigots and Enthusiasts at first, so it has brought forth the Atheists of this Age. For Atheism is the natural Production of Superstition and Enthusiasm, as one Extreme terminates in and begets another. An Atheist is only an Enthusiast between sleeping and waking, in which Sort of Delirium he feels enamour’d on Reason as his Mistress and Idol, while he is raving against God and Providence. The Enthusiast is commonly grave and severe, but the Atheist gay and ludicrous; one groans and sighs, and the other laughs and sneers at Religion and Virtue. The Enthusiast in his sullen, dumb fits is always premeditating Mischief, and waiting for an Opportunity to rush upon you unawares, or stab you in the Dark; but the Atheist gives fair Warning, and cries out I am unclean, unclean! Stand off or I shall destroy you. In short, there are only two species of Distinction: the Enthusiast is deeply and sullenly out of his Wits, and the Atheist is merrily and rantingly mad, and both are owing to the same general Cause, and may be reckoned the two opposite and distinct sorts of religious lunacy. And one of these Extremes Men must always necessarily run into, when they bewilder themselves in the Clouds and Darkness of their own Imaginations, and seek for Religion anywhere, without the Boundaries of moral Truth and Righteousness. [ix]

(For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2011/10/01/updated-index-to-melville-blogs/, or https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/.)


                [i] 1. Fybate Lecture Notes (Berkeley, California, 1968) reads Ahab as a seeker after truth, at any cost (29), also mentioning oscillations between Ahab and Ishmael (31).

                [ii] 2. See Stephen C. Behrendt, The Moment of Explosion: Blake and the Illustration of Milton (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983), 71. “Separation was for Blake the essence of the fall of man; the establishment and assertion of separate individuals was an act of fragmentation grounded in pride and totally destructive to unity, integration and wholeness.”

                [iii] 3. The recently expurgated Pierre, edited by Hershel Parker and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (New York: HarperCollins, 1995) excises those passages that reveal Pierre as a writer, a move justified by Parker’s theory that the novel as he conceives it was finished before the middle of January, 1852 (xl), and that further additions were an impulsive response to bad Moby-Dick reviews and an insulting book contract. Such abridgement also has the effect, however, of obscuring Ahab’s “private quest” as art-making/ demystification, an aim found in a lower layer than the one perceived by Starbuck.

[iv] 4.  Leyda Papers, NYU, Folder pre 1930, Sunday School clippings, etc.

[v] 5. Quoted in Thomas Daniel Young, Gentleman in a Dustcoat (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1976), 191. See 162-163 for Ransom’s concept of romantic irony as the dualism produced by disillusion with youthful hopes for happiness in the garden of this world, a happiness brought about by man’s shaping interventions.

[vi] 6. Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Part I, Chapter 6, 26. Do Melville’s rebel senses refer only to repressed sexuality, or are they the necessary stimulus to thought, reflection, and the perilous search for “why” and “how”?

[vii] 7. “Sir Eglamor and the Dragon, How General George Monck slew a most Cruell Dragon, Feb.11, 1659,” Rump: or an Exact Collection of the Choycest Poems and Songs Relating to the Late Times (London, 1662), 371-2.

                [viii]  8. Quoted in Cicely V. Wedgwood, Politics and Poetry Under the Stuarts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1960), 165-166. Dryden’s fears have not been quieted in her commentary: “Leaving aside this sidelong shot at current political theories about noble savages, this is the statement of a man who remembers the excesses of the sects and disorders of the Civil War, who sees how fatally easy it is to kindle into flame a ‘Headstrong, Moody, Murm’ring race’–a one-sided but not untrue description of the seventeenth-century English–and who knows how difficult it will be to put out the flame once kindled?” Her obituary (NYT, 3/11/97) credits her with “vivid narratives [that] told the story of Britain with the common man in mind.” A fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, 1953-68, Dame Veronica was born in 1910 to Sir Ralph Wedgwood, a baronet and former head of British Railways, and was great-great granddaughter to Josiah Wedgwood (identified here as a potter).

                [ix] 9. Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher. In a Dialogue Between Philalethes a Christian Deist, and Theophanes a Christian Jew (London, 1738, second edition), 219-220.

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)

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/

May 20, 2010

“Criminal Minds,” “The Mentalist, “and the pathology of rural America

Thomas Gibson playing Agent Hotchner, scowling as usual

Like it or not, most Americans get their notions of mental health from the media, including the numerous television shows in which serial killers run amok until a heroic band of profilers psyches them out and captures them (but not before we have seen oceans of blood and other mayhem). (This blog was followed up here: https://clarespark.com/2011/05/20/the-mentalist-melville-blake-and-israel/.)

This blog is about the episode of CBS’s Criminal Minds that aired on Wednesday May 19. Although most of their prey reside in Southern, Midwestern, and Western rural and small town America (and this was no exception), this show that weekly demonstrates the prowess of a team of Quantico-trained FBI agents strongly came out against the internet (especially social networks) as a source of murderous “narcissism”.  Social networks, they allege,  primarily cater to vanity, enabling voyeurs and attention-hungry techies (like last night’s murderer). The output of these new-fangled maddening inventions is [the Red State of] “Anarchy.”  Narcissism is understood as a craving for attention among those who, sucked into celebrity culture, have inflated self-esteem and have found their own niche among the pale-faced perverts who populate these non-urban , almost wilderness, areas. But most subtly of all, the killer of May 19 wanted to kill women who looked like him (this exact phrase was repeated several times). Is it too much of a leap to propose that embedded in this horrific tale is a reproach from liberals to conservatives who have resisted affirmative action and other liberal remedies for institutional discrimination? Are conservatives indeed all nativists and racists who instinctively abhor those who are “different?”

As many of these blogs have argued, “narcissism” is the term of opprobrium traditionally ascribed to everyone from actors and artists to mad scientists, and to technicians of every kind, including greedy Wall Street businessmen.  It is a reproach emanating from communitarians and other corporatists whose diagnosis of fascism rested upon the idea that Hitler’s supporters were one-sided in their educational training and experience, hence lacked the spirituality that can only be instilled by “faith.” Or Faith, Hope, and Charity, as Glenn Beck likes to put it, echoing centuries of religious conservative thought.

But Freud and many of his followers described normal or “healthy” narcissism, understood as having developed a strong sense of self, and being able to soothe oneself in the face of social disapproval or grievous losses. One gets this healthy narcissism from a strong maternal bond (I am referring here to attachment theory as put forth by John Bowlby), with separation from the mother managed successfully. This healthy narcissism grounded in early echoing and mirroring of the child’s feelings, never came up in the episode, though it could have been worked in by the didactic genius team member Reed, who did simply state that “narcissism” was overused in today’s world, while later brilliantly analyzing the facial configurations of the killer’s prior victims to show that key elements coincided with his own face.

It is true that Facebook is used by many for trivial purposes, but to condemn the internet as a dangerous innovation that causes sadism and a life of mayhem directed against women is overreaching of a particularly dangerous, almost criminal character. And, oh, the internet is possibly the most democratizing technical innovation of the recent past. Finally, the gatekeepers of mass media have lost their monopoly on news and opinion.

Added 5-21-10: The Mentalist ended its second season on 5-20, beginning with a televised murder of a woman alone in her bed. The plot was remarkably similar to that of Criminal Minds, except that now it is clear that the threat of the internet extends to ordinary persons possessed of movie cameras, hence able to realize their demonic ambitions. But this series was more literary than the Criminal Minds episode, for the serial killer Red John, having mentalist Patrick Jane in his clutches (wrapped in plastic), and wearing a mask quotes Blake’s famous poem about the Reign of Terror (1793-94), “The Tyger”. (The first verse only: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright /In the forests of the night,/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?)  . Blake’s poem is not just about the Terror and the furies of unleashed mobs, but about the Promethean element in civilization that has continuously terrified the upper classes in the Age of Revolution. But here is the best part. Patrick Jane returns to his austere prison-like room (the iron cage of materialism?), lies down on a mattress very much like a pallet, with the Red John smiley face painted on the wall above his bed. And the mentalist (an opponent of magical thinking) then repeats the first verse of “The Tyger.” What to make of this?
Bruno Heller (writer for the HBO series Rome as well as The Mentalist) is an educated man. He knows about Doppelgängers. As a rejector of the supernatural, Heller probably knows that artists who write against the centuries of magical thinking are educating the lower orders in the ways of empiricism, and no less than Herman Melville, fears the volcanic rage within himself that he could be releasing in the proto-revolutionary audience by mocking those who do not rely upon close observation of this world. Bruno Heller’s Promethean characters, no less than Melville’s Captain Ahab and other red-flag-flying usurpers of priestly authority, are both the mentalist (does he have a heart?) and Red John.

[Added 12-15-10. I have read Zoe Heller’s The Believers, and in an interview she discloses that her father Lukas is anti-religion, married a non-Jew, and has or had a half-sister who survived Auschwitz. I cannot know what her brother Bruno Heller’s beliefs are regarding the Nazi phenomenon. Perhaps he is one who sees the seizure of power as the revolt of the masses and an outgrowth of Jacobinism in the West. From the Wiki description of the family, they all sound like liberals.]

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