YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 19, 2014

Thomas Carlyle, German Romanticism, and the double bind of modernity

thomascarlyle [Thomas Carlyle’s idea of politically correct sublimity:]…In Goethe’s mind, the first aspect that strikes us is its calmness, then its beauty; a deeper inspection reveals to us its vastness and unmeasured strength.  This man rules and is not ruled.  The stern and fiery energies of a most passionate soul lie silent in the centre of his being; a trembling sensibility has been inured to stand, without flinching or murmur, the sharpest trials.  Nothing outward, nothing inward, shall agitate or control him.  The brightest and most capricious fancy, the most piercing and inquisitive intellect, the wildest and deepest imagination; the highest thrills of joy, the bitterest pangs of sorrow: all these are his, he is not theirs.  While he moves every heart from its steadfastness, his own is firm and still: the words that search into the inmost recesses of our nature, he pronounces with a tone of coldness and equanimity; in the deepest pathos, he weeps not, or his tears are like water trickling from a rock of adamant.  He is king of himself and his world; nor does he rule it like a vulgar great man, like a Napoleon or Charles II, by the mere brute exertion of his will, grounded on no principle, or on a false one: his faculties and feelings are not fettered or prostrated under the iron sway of Passion, but led and guided in kindly union under the mild sway of Reason; as the fierce primeval elements of Nature were stilled at the coming of Light, and bound together, under its soft vesture, into a glorious and beneficent Creation.

[Carlyle, continued:] This is the true Rest of man; no stunted unbelieving callousness, no reckless surrender to blind Force, no opiate delusion; but the harmonious adjustment of Necessity and Accident, of what is changeable and what is unchangeable in our destiny; the calm supremacy of the spirit over its circumstances; the dim aim of every human soul, the full attainment of only a chosen few….[German Romance, Vol. IV, 17-18].

[Clare:] Historicizing the double-bind.  Since the inception of modernity (especially after the seventeenth century), conservative “liberal” institutions have placed their inhabitants in double-binds, transmitting libertarian ideals while simultaneously (and vaguely) delimiting the institutional transformation that would make these ideals fully realizable.  Treasured liberal virtues of free thought and tolerance of intellectual differenceneed to be shored up and reinforced by institutions that boldly imagine structures capable of systematically advancing and protecting autonomy; not only emancipation from the burden of the antidemocratic past, but informed participation in collective decision-making.  As moderns of course, we are supposed to be willing to dissolve conventional categories to follow the dynamics of change; we allow our minds freely to speculate and experiment, no matter who may be offended.

As social critics, we supposedly bring to the humanities and social sciences the same attention to minute empirical detail that a biochemist applies to the study of molecular structure.  Although every serious artist studies the world with the concentration of scientists and puts out, similarly darting habits of mind will be absent from academics who study each other for career cues then lapse into strategic silences.  Inattention to psychological nuance in primary source materials yields the field to practitioners of psychological warfare and other tireless propagandists who, like Thomas Carlyle, while apparently affirming the values of the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, have sought to undo the democratic momentum of the scientific revolution, attacking the self-confidence of newly empowered groups (the increasingly literate lower orders of the bourgeois democracies) with cautionary tales that stigmatize the questing, critical (Lockean) intellect that exposes “the ill designs of the rulers” as sources of social catastrophe.


The pseudo-moderate men make no sense: Carlyle, in one breath, denounces “the reckless surrender to blind force”; in almost the next he praises “the harmonious adjustment of Necessity and Accident.”  The “will,” we have already learned, is a “mere brute exertion,” ruled by “Passion,” unless led by “mild Reason”–madly defined as that “Rest” discerning what “is changeable and what is unchangeable in our destiny” as if the formulation of correct social policy (an intervention) is not only obvious to the quieted mind but not canceled by “destiny.”

In his sketch of Goethe, Carlyle has given us a rectified Wandering Jew recognizable now as a conservative psychoanalyst/academic, a “scientific” harmonizer at once promoting “the temper of a third party” (today called “the observing ego”) and the stoic adjustment to social forces that may be incomprehensible and certainly are not of his making.  History is marshaled to underline the inevitability of human weakness; coolness and kindness are attained when he objectively understands the power of the past “in the formation of his character and mode of thought.”  Here is the proof of superior self-control, a quality glaringly absent in the weeping, willful, defiant lower orders: masochism builds character.


I want to suggest why, even in the most exhaustive historical treatments of the Third Reich, the psychological aspects of “the National Socialist past” are the least developed and understood.[1]  We should look to the repressive character of academic politics since the late 1930s, intensified, but not initiated by “the Cold War.”  No societies, even those with robust Left intelligentsias, have formulated satisfactory explanations for popular support of authoritarian regimes and genocidal practices in this century.

The deficiencies of academe today may be partly traced to the eerie quiet that followed World War II regarding the nature of fascism, a richly controversial subject in the relatively wide-open 1930s.  One might think that “the Holocaust” would have provoked tireless efforts to decode the symbols and narratives that undermine democratic morale.  Instead we have been served a very few crude explanations, each interesting and perhaps useful, but too narrow and unempathic fully to explain Hitler’s mass appeal, even in the working class.[2]  Why do we not demand the teaching of competing systematic accounts of Nazi ideology, scrutinizing those features also found in the discourse and practice of  Progressive reform, or to Nazism’s corporatist precursors in Wilhelmine Germany(Bismarck!) and other hierarchical societies, Western and non-Western alike?

In my view, the reticences reflect the prestige of “holistic””structural-functionalism,”[3] the victorious counter-Enlightenment that purged the classical liberals, tending to legitimate only different varieties of conservatives and reactionaries: a coalition of “centrist” or “moderate” corporatist liberals, and “left-wing” romantic anticapitalists, defining themselves against “right-wing” or “fascist” laissez-faire conservatives.  Rallying its forces in the late 1930s, the new “non-élitist” cultural anthropology/”new historicism” tended to proscribe the critical tool of empiricism, employing an ostensibly more advanced, but arguably pseudo-modern, protofascist concept of “the individual-in-society” pursuing “equilibrium,” not enlightenment.[4]

Structural functionalists following Talcott Parsons have co-opted the terms and methods of science to mystify social structures and functions, substituting their “interdisciplinary” social science for the soul-less “economic determinism” ushered in by the Individualists: materialists such as Locke, Mandeville, and Smith who fixated upon relations between men and things, displacing the prior preoccupation with relations between men and men in that healthier world where economics and morality were fused.[5]  Hence all of American intellectual history could be organized around the “tension” between “individual and community,” suggesting that self-control, curbing our evil propensities, was the key to social cohesion, and this was a quality that rulers had or could display as they faced down and soothed screaming mobs and other self-interested parties.  (See Boas above and compare to Henry A. Murray’s “personology.”)  This idealist formulation dominates the profession of history today; current guides to upwardly-mobile youth include “pragmatists” William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty.



                [1] See Tim Mason, “Open Questions on Nazism,” People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981): 205-210.  Cf. Wolfgang Benz, “Warding Off The Past,” Hitler, The Holocaust, and the Historians’ Debate, ed. Peter Baldwin (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990): 198.  Benz wants the social psychological processes more fully explored, but does not acknowledge that social psychology was invented by antidemocratic social theorists.  I see “psychology” as coterminous with the recuperation of an accurate personal and social history/critical sociology, all institutional sources of coercion and duplicity in place.

                [2] Many conservative historians argue that fascism was rooted in the period between the wars and cannot be theorized.  But liberals and Marxists disagree.  For example, Marxists argue that fascism is always present in crisis-ridden late capitalism, its productive relations and capitalist forms in increasing irreconcilable conflict appearing as monopoly capitalism or “social democracy”; or, fascism is a response to capitalist crises, but crucially is a mobilization of the ruined middle-class that moves both against big capital and the revolutionary workers; or capitalism will produce cyclical downturns, but not necessarily crises (which are caused by bungling leaders and bad political decisions which then allowed the rise of crazy Hitler, a unique event); or Nazism was the product of crazy, cynical Hitler and his deluded German followers (the inheritors of German Romanticism lacking a developed pluralistic bourgeoisie, unlike Mussolini); or Hitler could not have existed without Stalin.  I prefer the approach of the German historian Fritz Fischer in Germany’s Aims in the First World War (Norton, 1967) which stresses the similarity in objectives between the German imperialism of the Wilhelmine and Nazi periods; hence the weight given to Hitler’s demonic personality and its aberrant hold over the duped masses is diminished by crucial archival evidence (retrieved by Fischer and unavailable until after the second world war) demonstrating that the German military and industrial élite stage-managed the diplomacy leading to the outbreak of hostilities in World War I to make Germany appear as innocent victim of the Entente powers.

There is an important debate between “intentionalists” and “functionalists” re the dynamics of the Final Solution; however the psychoanalytic model, ostensibly opposed to the instrumentalism of the functionalists is not an alternative.  Psychoanalytic theories of Nazi antisemitism are biologized and mirror the reform-or-ruin adjurations of post-French Revolution conservatives (and before that all antidemocratic “classical” theorists): overly repressive (aristocrats, fathers, superegos) should be reformed to prevent catastrophic revolts from below (the bloody, tyrannical People, Id merged with seductive Mothers); this may produce contradictions in the thought of its leading historians.  Saul Friedländer argues simultaneously that Germans in general were unenthusiastic about Jewish extermination during the late 1930s-early 1940s and that the same Germans liberalized family relations in succeeding generations to give us hope.  For a classic statement of the Stalinist 1930s view of fascism as capitalism in decay, see Joseph Freeman, “The Meaning of Fascism,” (favorable review of R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution), New Masses, 10/2/34, 34-36.  For a non-Marxist account of Hitler’s rise to power, then Third Reich business policies see David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to the present (Cambridge U. P., 1969): 359-419.

For the second position (that “late capitalism”is not necessarily fascist), see Stephen Eric Bronner, Moments of Decision (N.Y.: Routledge, 1992).  For historiographical essays, see Peter Loewenberg, “Psychohistorical Perspectives on Modern German History,” Journal of Modern History 47 (1975): 229-279.  Also, Pierre Ayçoberry, The Nazi Question (Pantheon, 1981): Chapter 10 (for Freudian interpretations); Saul Friedländer, “From Anti-Semitism to Extermination: A Historiographical Study of Nazi Policies Toward The Jews and an Essay in Interpretation,” Yad Vashem Studies 16 (1984): 1-50.

The other (related) set of debates concerns whether or not fascism (or Nazism, which is not necessarily “fascist” because of the centrality of antisemitism to its ideology) is rooted and sui generis, or in any way comparable to tendencies in the “democratic” West, and most sensitively, whether or not “the Holocaust” can be compared with other forms of group violence.  See Tim Mason, “Intention and Explanation: A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of National Socialism,” The Führer State: Myth and Reality, ed. Gerhard Hirschfeld and Lothar Kettenacker (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981): 23-40; also Peter Baldwin, “Introduction,” Reworking The Past (Beacon, 1990) for a review of these issues insofar as they impact on “the historian’s debate” (Nolte vs. Habermas, et al, 1988 and after) regarding continuity and rupture in German history.  Conservatives seem to have set the agenda for postwar history of Germany, Nazis, and antisemitism; see Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? The Dispute About The Germans’ Understanding of History, trans. Knowlton and Cates (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994): All these eminent scholars use the terms of enlightenment to “unmask” each other; no one reports the contours of Hitler’s antisemitism as it is revealed in the texts quoted in my essay, perhaps because their organicist assumptions would become apparent.

Deborah Lipstadt takes a similar line in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (N.Y.: Free Press, 1993).  Though ostensibly defending the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Lipstadt discards any attempt at comparative analyses of twentieth-century genocides as right-wing relativism akin to Holocaust denying.  On Pol Pot and the sorely tried Khmer Rouge: “…what they did was quite different from the Nazis’ annihilation of the Jews, which was ‘a gratuitous act carried out by a prosperous, advanced, industrial nation at the height of its power’“ (212).  Nor does she correctly report a key point in Nazi propaganda and in their precursors: Referring to the conspiracy theory of the Illuminati, she claims “Those who unearthed this conspiracy were able to impose a logical coherence on the seeming irrational nature of their charges–bankers aiding communists–by arguing that the bankers anticipated that the communists would create a world government that they would then appropriate and control” (37).  This is the only time the book deals with the seemingly irrational claim that Jews were both capitalists and communists.  But it was Hitler’s contention that all Jews were materialists destroying normal racial harmony, and that the Bolsheviks were not communists but the secret representives of finance capital.  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion claimed that Jewish communists would swindle the masses into overthrowing their nationalist masters, then would turn the masses over to the bankers who would fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham and the Chosen People; i.e., the switch is missing from Lipstadt’s account.

                [3] See Barbara Heyl, “The Harvard “Pareto” Circle,”Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 4 (1968): 316-334.  Talcott Parsons changed his earlier (less organicist?) views perhaps as a result of the Pareto seminars organized by the charismatic physiologist Lawrence Henderson, an admirer of Mussolini, in the early 1930s; the Paretans were seen as fascists by their liberal opponents at Harvard.  Participants included Crane Brinton, Henry A. Murray, Clyde Kluckhohn, Joseph Schumpeter, Bernard De Voto, and Robert Merton  However, after sketching a horrifying picture of fascist social theory at Harvard the author concludes that we are finished with such ideas, thanks to the alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II.  Merton is a key figure in the history of science as presently constituted, relativistically emphasizing the shaping power of institutions against 19th century optimism and claims for science’s relative autonomy.  See Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science; The Merton Thesis, edited with Introduction by I. Bernard Cohen (Rutgers U.P., 1990): 1-111, for a glowing anticommunist account of Merton’s eye-opening salutary effect on a hitherto vaguely Marxist (hence, narrow, dogmatic, utopian) British-dominated discipline: “[Mentioning earlier works of the 1930s and 40s on science and society:] It is notable, however, that these works were all produced by socially-minded scientists and were not informed by considerations of professional sociologists [i.e., Durkheim], but exhibited instead a liberal or vague Marxism.  In fact [!] such writings–almost exclusively by British men of science–tended to be more concerned with the potentialities of science as a major molding force of a better society than with an analysis of the possible effects or influences of society on the course of science and its stages of development” (4-5).

                [4] See Carolyn F. Ware, The Cultural Approach to History, ed. for the American Historical Association (N.Y.: Columbia U.P., 1940): 3-16, also Introductory Note.  This source was recommended by Leo Marx at the American Studies Association meeting, November 1990, to demonstrate the links between his generation of scholars and the New Left: they were all pluralists, opposed to hegemony and élitism.  The élitism under assault by Progressives was “scientific history” which led the investigator into uncharted waters.  The “new social history” is drawn from this “centrist” and “bottoms up” ideological tendency.  See also the first issue of Commentary, 1945, which aligned itself with the Progressive movement.

                [5] E.g., Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx:The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology (University of Chicago Press, 1977).  This subtly antisemitic and overtly anti-materialist specimen of cultural anthropology follows Sombart, Weber, and Parsons; it was based on lectures delivered at Princeton in 1973.


August 31, 2013

October 7, 2012

Christian Socialism as precursor to Orwell

Orwell’s legacy is controversial. I see his tragic vision as a continuation of the moral reformers reacting to the Chartist movement in Britain, 1839-1850.  This book essay lays out the case for “a change of heart” as opposed to structural reform. It is my contention that Orwell’s most important precursor was Thomas Carlyle (identified by Orwell during the war years, as a precursor to fascism), whose claim that all social relationships were subsumed under the “cash nexus” in industrial society was taken up by Marx and his followers all of whom continue to rail against “finance capital.” (The defeated Winston Smith recites this rhyme at the end of 1984: ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree /I sold you and you sold me –‘. This alleged commodification of human relationships is crucial to all modern socialist ideologies, including populism; i.e., you must purify your heart of the love of money that is the root of all evil.)

In my book, I show how Kingsley’s archetypal “agitator” bears a close resemblance to Melville’s character Captain Ahab. Note especially that Benjamin Netanyahu cited the Hebrew prophets as the founders of “civilization” in his UN speech. (See last sentences in https://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/.) For more on the origins of social democracy (e.g. the New Deal), see https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/.

[book excerpt, Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 5 (the chapter that got me into trouble with Verso):]

The Old Testament Jewish prophet as “the agitator” was developed by the English cleric and Christian Socialist Charles Kingsley in his cautionary tale, Alton Locke tailor and poet (1850), published anonymously while Melville was composing Moby-Dick.[i] Kingsley’s book purports to be the confession of a genuine repentant radical who has died of consumption. Inspired by the “old Jewish heroes” Moses, David, and Jehu, and rejecting (conservative) Calvinism, the tailor Alton Locke was fired by the aspirations of other “working men whose craving is only for some idea which shall give equal hopes, claims, and deliverances, to all mankind alike!” (12,13). For Ishmael, the radical Enlightenment was a snare and a delusion: those who strive for truth, justice, and equality in a world purged of wickedness, but who are armed, like Ahab (or the dark angel depicted in Dürer’s Melencolia I or Rosa’s Democritus in Meditation) solely with the tools of earthly (not Right) Reason, will end their efforts in despair, wrecking the rest of humanity along with themselves. But we must not push the comparison too far. Alton Locke leaves us with ex-radicals tearfully but gladly chastened and regenerated; Moby-Dick leaves a regenerated orphan, dying into life, as Howard Vincent says, but, as Vincent does not say, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin (primitivism), a coffin lacking a keel. The coffin had breached like a whale; Ishmael was rescued by a whale/coffin without a conscience, without balance.

Alton Locke recalls his collapse into the monomania of Chartism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartism) , prepared by harsh poverty and mother’s levelling religious zeal:

Female “Chartist”

“…those old Jewish heroes did fill my heart and soul. I learnt from them lessons which I never want to unlearn…they were patriots, deliverers from that tyranny and injustice from which the child’s heart,–’child of the devil’ though you may call him,–instinctively, and, as I believe, by a divine inspiration, revolts. Moses leading his people out of Egypt; Gideon, Barak, and Samson, slaying their oppressors; David, hiding in the mountains from the tyrant, with his little band of those who had fled from the oppressions of an aristocracy of Nabals; Jehu, executing God’s vengeance on the kings–these were my heroes, my models; they mixed themselve up with the dim legends about the Reformation martyrs, Cromwell and Hampden, Sidney and Monmouth, which I had heard at my mother’s knee. Not that the perennial oppression of the masses, in all ages and countries, had yet risen on me as an awful, torturing, fixed idea. I fancied, poor fool, that tyranny was the exception, and not the rule. But it was the mere sense of abstract pity and justice which was delighted in me. I thought that these were old fairy tales, such as never need to be realized again. I learnt otherwise in later years (12, 13).”

No Melville scholar has proposed that Alton Locke might have been a source for Moby-Dick (or if not a source, then a work carrying identical baggage). However, the Illustrated London News recognized the political referent of The Whale (the title of the English edition of Moby-Dick): “the personages are so conceived as to be types of the principal different parties and classes into which the late Aggression agitation split up the community.”[ii] Kingsley’s character Crossthwaite, a Chartist who fascinates Alton (as Ahab fascinates Ishmael, as Isabel fascinates Pierre), resembles Narcissus/Ahab and his reflection or double, the Whale: “Wild grey eyes gleamed out from under huge knitted brows, and a perpendicular wall of brain, too large for his puny body.”[iii] Here is Crossthwaite’s defiant speech as proletarian Christ to his fellow tailors, meeting to discuss their response to the newly (Jewishly) imposed system of piecework. Perhaps Crossthwaite is a source (or parallel) for Ahab with the “crucifixion in his face”:

‘…Every one fancies the laws which fill his pockets to be God’s laws. But I say this. If neither government nor members of Parliament can help us, we must help ourselves. Help yourselves and Heaven will help you. Combination among ourselves is the only chance. One thing we can do–sit still.’

‘And starve!’ said some one.

‘Yes, and starve! Better starve than sin. I say, it is a sin to give into this system. It is a sin to add our weight to the crowd of artisans who are now choking and strangling each other to death, as the prisoners did in the black hold of Calcutta. Let those who will, turn beasts of prey, and feed upon their fellows; but let us at least keep ourselves pure. It may be the law of political civilisation, the law of nature, that the rich should eat up the poor, and the poor eat up each other. Then I here rise and curse that law, that civilisation, that nature. Either I will destroy them, or they shall destroy me. As a slave, as an increased burden on my fellow-sufferers, I will not live. So help me God! I will take no work home to my house; and I call upon every one here to combine, and to sign a protest to that effect.’

‘What’s the use of that, my good Mr. Crossthwaite?’ interrupted someone querulously. ‘Don’t you know what come of the strike a few years ago, when this piecework first came in? The masters made fine promises, and never kept’em; and the men who stood out had their places filled up with poor devils who were glad enough to take the work at any price–just as ours will be. There’s no use kicking against the pricks. All the rest have come to it, and so must we. We must live somehow, and half a loaf is better than no bread; and even that half-loaf will go into other men’s mouths, if we don’t snap at it at once. Besides, we can’t force others to strike. We may strike and starve ourselves, but what’s the use of a dozen striking out of twenty thousand!’

‘Will you sign the protest, gentlemen,[iv] or not?’ asked Crossthwaite in a determined voice.

Some half-dozen said they would, if the others would.

‘And the others won’t. Well, after all, one man must take the responsibility, and I am that man. I will sign the protest by myself. I will sweep a crossing – I will turn cress-gatherer, rag-picker; I will starve piecemeal, and see my wife starve with me; but do the wrong thing I will not! The cause wants martyrs. If I must be one, I must’ (104-105, my emph.). [v]

Later, Crossthwaite becomes a professional labor organizer, an “agitator” resembling Ahab:

He scribbled, agitated; ran from London to Manchester, and Manchester to Bradford, spouting, lecturing–sowing the east wind, I am afraid, and little more. Whose fault was it? What could such a man do, with that fervid tongue, and heart, and brain of his, in such a station as his, such a time as this? Society had helped to make him an agitator. Society has had, more or less, to take the consequences of her own handiwork. For Crossthwaite did not speak without hearers. He could make the fierce, shrewd artisan nature flash out into fire–not always celestial, nor always, either, infernal. [Cf. Isabel’s face, “compounded so of hell and heaven.”] So he agitated and lived–how, I know not (187).

Chartist meeting

Compare Kingsley’s fantasy with Ishmael’s in “The First Lowering”:

But what it was that inscrutable Ahab said to that tiger-yellow crew of his–these were words best omitted here; for you live under the blessed light of the evangelical land. Only the infidel sharks in the audacious seas may give ear to such words, when with tornado brow, and eyes of red murder, and foam-glued lips, Ahab leaped after his prey (223).

Alton Locke contrasts the Chartist’s integrity with his own as a hack writer, in terms achingly reminiscent of Melville’s complaint to Hawthorne (1? June, 1851), “Dollars damn me…What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,–it will not pay.”

It was miserable work, there is no denying it–only not worse than tailoring.–To try and serve God and Mammon too; to make miserable compromises daily, between the two great incompatibilities, what was true, and what would pay; to speak my mind, in fear and trembling, by hints and halves, and quarters; to be daily hauling poor Truth just up to the top of her well, and then, frightened at my own success, let plump down again to the bottom; to sit there, trying to teach others, while my mind was in a whirl of doubt; to feed others’ intellects, while my own was hungering; to grind on in the Philistine’s mill, or occasionally make sport for them, like some weary-hearted clown grinning in a pantomime…as blind as Samson, but not, alas as strong (Alton Locke, 188-189).

[Clare:] Kingsley must drop the truth he has laboriously dredged up, lest he become an agitator, a monomaniac diagnosed as the prisoner of a fixed-idea, as the carrier of a fatal disease (the doomed revolution). And yet, with Ishmael, Kingsley fears the “tornado brow” of his own raging disappointment, flying into “a whirl of doubt” when he chooses Mammon over God. Resubmerging poor Truth has turned him into an exhausted Pierrot. Like the repentant Wandering Jew, the compromised intellectual is cursed to pace and tarry sleeplessly until the Second Coming, to preach that slavery is freedom, ignorance is bliss, that universalist notions such as political freedom, equality before the law, and the amelioration of suffering are ploys dreamed up by demagogues to manufacture “difference” within the Volk.[i] The richer Truth that roots the torn-up Kingsley and Melville is the appetizing menu of the monarchist, railing against republics breeding furious, leveling and regicidal mobs.[ii]

What about these retreats into “pragmatism”? I have made a case for a masqued Melville arguing for vast structural transformations while hiding behind the narrator, but even if I am wrong, the Tory relapses could be products of depression leading to the temporary ascendancy of a conservative program of individual moral reform, resignation to permanent earthly bewilderment and the retraction of Isabel’s lawless wandering. Alton Locke understood his error but too late to avert an untimely death from consumption.[iii] “Fool that I was! It was within, rather than without, that I needed [structural] reform” (110). Likewise, the other fanatical genius, Crossthwaite, is brought out of the Charter and into Christ by an upper-class radical, Eleanor, “her figure dilating, and her eyes flashing, like an inspired prophetess”:

‘…Denounce the effete idol of property qualification, not because it happens to strengthen class interests against you, but because as your mystic dream reminded you, and therefore, as you knew long ago, there is no real rank, no real power, but worth; and worth consists not in property, but in the grace of God. Claim, if you will, annual parliaments, as a means of enforcing the responsibility of Christian rulers to the Christian community, of which they are to be, not the lords, but the ministers–the servants of all. But claim these, and all else for which you long, not from man, but from God, the King of men. And therefore, before you attempt to obtain them, make yourselves worthy of them–perhaps by that process you will find some of them have become less needful. At all events, do not ask, do not hope, that He will give them to you, before you are able to profit by them. Believe that He has kept them from you hitherto, because they would have been curses, and not blessings. Oh! look back, look back, at the history of English Radicalism for the last half century, and judge by your own deeds, your own words; were you fit for those privileges which you so frantically demanded? Do not answer me, that those who had them were equally unfit; but thank God, if the case be indeed so, that your incapacity was not added to theirs, to make confusion worse confounded! Learn a new lesson. Believe at last that you are in Christ, and become new creatures….’

Crossthwaite had kept his face fast buried in his hands; now he looked up with brimming eyes–

‘I see it–I see it all now. Oh, my God! my God! What infidels we have been!’ (End book excerpt: 362, 364-365).

[Clare’s wrap up:] I have reviewed a persistent trope: Tories attributed Jewish characteristics to the Puritan rebels after the English Civil War, while reserving all civic virtue and balance to themselves, the moderate men. English Tories applied the same discourse to America after the American Revolution; they denounced the ex-colonists as hypocrites, preaching godliness and equality while abusing non-whites and Nature. Few critics note the conservative strain in George Orwell, who at times follows this trope.  Happy Columbus Day weekend.

George Orwell passport photo

[i]               24. [Charles Kingsley], Alton Locke Tailor and Poet: An Autobiography, ed. Elizabeth A. Cripps (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983). Cf. Mary Wollestonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe, 1794, 4: “Locke, following the track of these bold thinkers [English emigrants to America], recommended in a more methodical manner religious toleration, and analyzed the principles of civil liberty: for in his definition of liberty we find the elements of The Declaration of the Rights of Man, which, in spite of the fatal errours of ignorance, and the perverse obstinacy of selfishness, is now converting sublime theories into practical truths.”

[ii]               25. 1 Nov. 1851, reprinted in Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, eds., Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts (1851-1970) (New York: Norton, 1970), 18.

[iii]              26. Cf. Lavater’s caption to his sketch of the Prophet-type, “After Raphael”: “Prophetic seriousness and apparent inexorableness/ The Eyes penetrating and immoveable, the Eyebrows choleric, the Nose firm & commanding, the Forehead hard and always forbidding, the Hair characteristic.”Physiognomical Sketches by Lavater, engraved from the original drawings by John Luffman (London, 1802), 46.

[iv]              27. I.e., no aristocrat would submit to such slavery.

[v]               28. The villain is Schechem Isaacs; Schechem was the name of George Walker’s benevolent Jew in Theodore Cyphon, 1796. With respect to Crossthwaite’s martyrdom, compare Mary Glendinning’s speech (quoted above), fearing that Pierre will darken himself as a “hope forlorn,” i.e., as a figure of the political/moral vanguard, sacrificing himself to a good cause.

[i] The distinguished German Professor Hans Ulrich-Wehler addressed the UCLA History Department Mar. 19, 1997, on the evolution of German nationalism since 1800. Self-described as a pragmatic advocate of Gesellschaft, he suggested that a regional nationalism (The European Union) would be an improvement on the older nationalism that seemed susceptible to right-wing radicalism during periods of crisis. When I asked why he did not prefer international solidarity grounded in science and universalist ethics [the radical Enlightenment vision] rather than a new bloc, he responded “Universalism creates difference.”

[ii]               30. Cf. Georg Brandes, Revolution and Reaction in Nineteenth-Century French Literature (N.Y.: Russell and Russell, 1960), 58-59: “Human reason had risen and freed itself with athletic strength. Everything that existed had to justify its existence. Where men heretofore had prayed for a miracle they now investigated into causes. Never before in history had there been such doubt, such labour, such inquiry, such illumination… For the time being the emancipatory movement was checked. It began once more to be inexpedient not to profess faith in revealed religion… The majority of the men without private means who had prepared themselves for government appointments, and could not overcome their irresistible desire to eat every day, were entirely reliable supporters of the re-establishment of the church. No one over twenty-five years of age will be surprised by the number of supporters orthodoxy gained from the moment when it advanced from being an absurdity to being a means of subsistence. To such converts add the great party of the timorous, all those who live in fear of the Red Republic, and in whose eyes religion was, first and foremost, a safeguard against it. It was among these that the army of the principle of authority obtained most recruits. From a religious body the church suddenly turned into a political party.”

[iii]              31. Alton Locke predicts his imminent demise: “No,–I shall never see the land [the New World]. I felt it all along. Weaker and weaker, day by day, with bleeding lungs and failing limbs, I have travelled the ocean-paths. The iron has entered too deeply into my soul…” Alton Locke, 388.

June 12, 2010

Preface to second edition of Hunting Captain Ahab

Posa's creator, Friedrich Schiller

His bosom glows with some new-fangled virtue,

Which, proud and self-sufficient, scorns to rest

For strength on any creed. He dares to think!

His brain is all on fire with wild chimeras;

He reverences the people! And is this

A man to be our king?

           — Schiller, Don Carlos, Father Domingo speaking


     I admit it. This is a passionately-written study of censorship and self-censorship that is also more detailed than most academic monographs. As a multi-voiced modernist collage, mining and organizing nuggets of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary thought spanning five centuries, it is unusually presented. I am preoccupied with vindicating Ahab as the explorer-creator who resides within Melville’s nervous imagination, reading and protesting the mixed-messages dispensed by the family and other confusing institutions insisting  that there is no conflict between the post-Enlightenment search for Truth and the maintenance of traditional Order. And why not? Captain Ahab, a stand-in for bemused autodidacts everywhere, is now routinely caricatured as a crusading madman, whose mistaken imputation of evil in his enemy and determination to “strike through the mask” of duplicitous authority is simply a ruse that covers up his own unquenchable and uncontrollable thirst for power and domination. Television writers and newsmen drop Ahab’s name and can expect a self-congratulatory nod from the reader, who would not be caught dead indulging in such narcissistic delusions and misguided rage. Given this apparent consensus of sobered-up Ishmaels, who would dream, say, of scanning the orations of Charles Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts and Melville’s contemporary, whose antislavery resolve finds resonance in Ahab’s determination to grapple with Leviathan?

[Charles Sumner, 1848:] “This [new coalition of antislavery men] will be the Freedom Power whose single object will be to resist the Slave Power. We will put them face to face, and let them grapple. Who can doubt the result?”

 [Ahab, chapter 135:] “…Towards thee I roll, thou all destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee….”

       Before this book appeared, who has objected, with appropriately extensive evidence, to the misappropriation of this fictional character, this pre-Hitlerian Ahab and synecdoche for America ? And who has traced the shift by politically-motivated Melvilleans away from Ahab as Promethean artist/antebellum reformer, and toward Melville as prophet of totalitarian dictatorship in that subsequent blood-soaked black century doomed through unleashed mass politics?  I refer to those scholars and their followers who have been most responsible for the Ahab-tyrant connection: reacting to Raymond Weaver’s artist-Ahab, they were Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, and Jay Leyda, whose intellectual biographies are attempted in chapters 6 through 9. Can a scholar care too much about the welfare of students and of other readers where Ahab-ish demystifications of hitherto idealized authority are concerned? Promethean readers would like to make distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate authority so that their own capacities for creativity and innovation are not warped, or their curiosity misdirected. Could it be that Melville’s alleged wife-beating (notwithstanding the lack of material evidence for such conduct) reflects discomfort with Melville as fist-shaking Ahab, avatar of radical Enlightenment (that forbidden rupture with the past suggested in Hawthorne’s “blood-incrusted pen of steel” that the latter associated with the Wandering Jew)? As a creature of  Enlightenment, should I tamp down my indignation that reforms in the humanities curriculum during the early 1940s that are specified here were constructed by ultra-conservatives intent on propagating “the tragedy of mind?” William Ellery Sedgwick (1899-1942), knew that he had found the key to Melville’s psyche as expressed in his art: Thinking can only take us from youthful utopianism and joy to mature and realistic desolation as we discover the foulness of human nature, or so he said posthumously, for he had suffered a heart attack in early 1942 under mysterious conditions, perhaps not the suicide that was rumored, and that I had reported as fact in the first edition. Harvard published his Herman Melville: Tragedy of Mind in 1944, and Jay Leyda sent this book (along with Matthiessen’s American Renaissance) to Sergei Eisenstein in 1946; it is still cited approvingly by Melvilleans. But Sedgwick’s stoicism could only depress and immobilize students trying out an adult identity with new-fangled virtues and intellectual skills that might alarm their families of origin.  Similarly “progressive” advocates of “organic unity” between generations and between ancients and moderns (like Sedgwick), had published with supporters of fascism and Nazism in the mid-1930s (pp.631-33, n.44), or were, like Leyda and Matthiessen, uncritical supporters of Stalin’s Soviet Union (chapter 8).

   So much for my closing/opening argument to the jury of readers, new and old. In response to helpful feedback from other Melville readers, there have been corrections or other refinements in some previous assertions about the personalities and politics of the Melville revival; I believe they strengthen the chief argument of my book: that Melville was ambivalently attracted to a positive view of the human capacity to uncover the secrets of the self, of nature, and of society’s mechanisms of control; that he was obliged, even driven, to resist inquisitorial internal and external voices, and that his (underground, partially erased) optimistic opinions continue to be repressed or marginalized by “moderate” Melvilleans; and that most established academic critics, defenders of the New Deal corporatist liberal state, aver that such radical protestant heresies as had existed in his pre-Civil War stage were mercifully transcended in Ahab-Melville’s conversion to Captain Vere. The irrepressible conflict engendered by Sedgwick’s fanatical abolitionist New England forebears turns out to have been repressible after all.

    The most fruitful corrections and additions to the hardcover book are these: two of Melville’s lengthiest Bible markings ( p.164), previously either unattributed or misattributed to St. Evremond), were actually extracted from major works by Goethe as translated by Carlyle: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels. As Goethe scholar Jane K. Brown tells us, the confessional Wilhelm Meister novels encompass Goethe’s Faustian drive to boldly expand his creative powers and the equally urgent call for renunciation of such individualistic self-absorption to protect traditional  hierarchies and social cohesion, a need made more forceful in the wake of the French Revolution. Goethe’s movement from the boundlessly expanded and developed art-making self to the austere and contracted social self can be seen in the contrast between Ahab and Ishmael/Vere. But had Ahab been discarded?

[Schiller’s Marquis Posa:] “…grant us liberty of thought… Tell him in manhood, he must still revere/ The dreams of early youth….”

 [Evert Duyckinck, 1851:] “[Ahab is] the Faust of the quarter-deck.”

      I found in Carlyle’s The Life of Friedrich Schiller, and in Schiller’s play Don Carlos, suggestions that Melville’s “heretic” “irruption” never ceased: he was writing “Billy Budd” with a synopsis of Schiller’s motif  (“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth”) pasted to the interior of his writing desk, perhaps to warn against lapsing into conformity with Vere’s mob-managing “measured forms.” What were those youthful dreams about? Glory, fame, or the uncircumscribed freedom to describe his inner and outer worlds, like other romantics, creating forms that had never been admitted to art as patronized by neo-classicizing elites?  In his Schiller biography, Carlyle likens Goethe to Shakespeare, and Schiller to Milton, invidiously contrasting Shakespeare’s “catholic”  “quiet eye” with the “sectarian” passions of Milton, who is “earnest, devoted; struggling with a thousand mighty projects of improvement; feeling more intensely as he feels more narrowly; rejecting vehemently, choosing vehemently; at war with the one half of things, in love with the other half; hence dissatisfied, impetuous, without internal rest, and scarcely conceiving the possibility of such a state.” (Should we think of Daniel Orme’s “vital glance” or  Margoth’s “brave vitality” as a Melvillean riposte to the Carlyle “quiet eye” quietism he attributed to Faust’s creator?)

     One of the chief themes of my book is the persistence of such Carlylean put-downs,  whether applied to Milton and other radical puritans of the seventeenth century or to left-wing romantics, including Byron or the pacing insomniac Melville in his earnest, enthusiast mood. I have argued throughout that the suppression of Melville’s annotations to Paradise Lost is one of the worst examples of censorship in Melville studies; but since the hardback edition of HCA appeared, happily, the annotations to Milton’s poetry have been published.  Critical commentary, however, tends to render Milton and Melville alike as moderates, while no one has teased out the implication of Melville’s partially erased ratification of Satan’s seduction of Eve (p. 147): “This is one of the profound atheistical hits of Milton. A greater than Lucretius, since he always teaches under a masque, and makes the Devil himself a Teacher & Messiah” ). When I saw this annotation in 1990, I began to wonder if Melville was not simply ambivalent or vacillating (as many Melvilleans, including Hayford, Leyda, and Parker had agreed), but ever masked, his most heartfelt Posa-type sentiments voiced only through his “dark” or Promethean characters–Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, Pitch, and Margoth. We may never know.

    My last thoughts in this preface are directed to political scientists, historians of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, and scholars in cultural studies who remain dubious about “science” and its claims for objectivity, or who doubt that empiricist historians, limited by “point of view,” can reconstruct prior institutions. Too often the history of mind-management has been written by “moderates” or leftists, who attribute antidemocratic propaganda to the protofascist bourgeoisie, to a monolithic and savage right-wing America, wrongly exemplified, I believe, by the hallucinating map-maker and mad scientist Captain Ahab. Melville’s “dark” characters were inadmissible to scholars of “the vital center”; as their private notes and letters have shown, many nevertheless suffered depression and other extreme mental distress while evacuating Melville’s modernists. Similarly “progressive” scholars may be snatching from their students’ hands those critical intellectual and emotional tools essential to Progress, most particularly an educated reverence for the potential of “the people” in analyzing and overcoming the less attractive impulses of our common humanity. I speak of “the people” not as a compact mass or “jacobin” mob, but as the great liberal Charles Sumner envisioned his uniquely blessed countrymen: a collection of striving individuals “created in the image of God,” critical and self-critical, but never succumbing to Bartleby’s existentialist despair. It is to the everlasting credit of Kent State University Press that they have brought this paperback edition and its innovations in style and content to the attention of a wider audience. My gratitude for their support lies beyond words.

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