The Clare Spark Blog

June 21, 2013

Apocalyptic landscapes and the escape artist

Pierre Massine's Apocalypse

Pierre Massine’s Apocalypse

Here is a sampling of prior blogs on the subject of apocalypse as irrationalist insistence on inevitable decadence.

https://clarespark.com/2009/11/17/melencolia-i-and-the-apocalypse-1938/

https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/

https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/

https://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/

https://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/ (read this first)

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/

https://clarespark.com/2013/03/22/traditionalists-on-the-culture-front/

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

Commentary: All parents are aware that toddlers go through years of fearing “monsters.”  Many sleep problems are associated with such imagos (images instigated by angry parents of either gender, or fighting in front of children, or images gleaned from mass media and some religions).

Counter-Enlightenment publicists mobilize such childhood fears (reinforced in popular culture and political propaganda) to influence public opinion in directions that are statist, even protofascist.  For instance, “progressive” schools introduce such terrifying subjects as the monstrosities of the Holocaust or of slavery before students have the emotional equipment to deal with them as events in the past, or to evaluate the claims that their effects linger in the present. Is it any wonder that teen-agers lap up horror movies featuring vampires and zombies, movies that may trivialize real life horrors or in the knowable past and predictable future? These kids are easy marks for movie and television producers who would have them live in a world populated by monsters–monsters who disappear when the lights go on; these and other propagandists denigrate the science and technology that will enable youngsters to navigate, with realism, all grown-up controversies.

My argument: it is impossible to have rational political debate on controversial subjects such as environmentalism or immigration reform in this infantilized atmosphere. What is increasingly clear to me is that the forces of reaction have the upper hand in popular culture. Have we turned into a nation of escape artists—escaping the responsibilities of citizenship through socially-induced regression? How convenient it is for the morally and politically lazy to pronounce that we are doomed.  Both liberals and conservatives should think through their own views on progress before they inflict their possible pessimism and depression on the young.

Here is an example of how a liberal publication criticizes apocalyptic thinking in order to argue for political action to halt man-made climate change. We need a more comprehensive critique of apocalyptic thinking than The Atlantic  offers us here: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/how-apocalyptic-thinking-prevents-us-from-taking-political-action/255758/.

Oil refinery as The End

Oil refinery as The End

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March 22, 2013

“Traditionalists” on the culture front

Kinkade

Kinkade “Sunrise”

[This is the second blog that mentions Andrew Klavan. See part one of this series here: https://clarespark.com/2013/03/11/do-paleoconservatives-want-a-theocracy/.]

As if the “culture wars” had not already sown enough confusion and polarization, some “traditionalists” are now encouraging right-thinking conservatives to make popular art that would challenge what is seen as the Hollywood monopoly on popular entertainment—a mass culture with way too much sex and not enough religion. Some warriors are humorously grotesque, for instance Bill O’Reilly’s offensive on behalf of the Easter Bunny. But others on the right participate in this war against “secular progressives” while others scan high culture for salutary examples with potential to heal a sick “body politic.”  For instance, Andrew Klavan (a convert to Christianity, and an ex-liberal as well, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Klavan), who writes popular mysteries, also writes on culture regularly for Pajamas Media. Klavan deplores what he calls “moral relativism,” preferring Immanuel Kant, the ethical universalist, over godless Nietzschean Supermen and the dread (and misconstrued) “deconstructionists” whom he links to Nazism. (See his talk of March 18, 2013 at the David Horowitz Freedom Center: http://tinyurl.com/ch8ucow.)

In the high Renaissance, great artists limited their subject matter to either religious art or to naked goddesses that pleased the propensities of aristocratic patrons. Recall too that Shakespeare was a Catholic, an anti-puritan, and a proponent of the organic society.  The Reformation, then the Enlightenment, began the long road to (partial) independence for artists, and a freer choice of subject matter and (subtly limited) freedom of thought and expression.

It is my own view that any repressed human being will be unable to make anything that passes for “modern” art, and that the traditionalist artists and illustrators (like Thomas Kinkade or Andrew Wyeth that seemingly upheld either “Christian” (Kinkade) or rural values (Wyeth) may be popular among older conservatives and even among liberals nostalgic for representation, but in this age of mass media with its celebration of youth culture, the call for more conservative artists and writers will find few patrons to subsidize their neo-“puritanism” except among themselves. But then today’s “culture warriors” define themselves against “modernity” and the dissenting individual, even as they protest groupiness–those notions such as multiculturalism that are collectivist in nature. For many “libertarians” (Klavan), the goal in “speaking truth to power” is to demolish Big Government, not to criticize authoritarian institutions, whether these appear at the national, local or state level, let alone within the family. (Even moderates may call for a revitalized mass culture: see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/29/fred-siegels-melodrama-of-20th-c-cultural-history/.)

Easter Bunny

Easter Bunny

We are all anticapitalists now. Modernism in the arts participated in the degeneration narrative, for these confusingly named “modernists,” the big corporation and technological pseudo-progress were agents of decadence, producing seductive consumer goods that vitiated class consciousness.  Along with celebrities, movie stars, and journalists, were the mobs unleashed by industrial capitalism, the New Woman, and the international Jewish conspiracy. Cain’s cities therefore were the site of hyper-sexuality, homosexuality, and all nervous anxieties, to be cured by a return to Nature and/or to order and anti-secular religion. The path to neoclassical safety would be mapped by primitivists and/or neo-medievalists from Left to Right seeking to renew paternal authority in the family. (On the dangers of cities see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/.)

Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth “Spring” (1978)

April 12, 2012

The Donkey Serenade and Buffett’s Rule

 Illustrated: Joe’s parents sing “A Fellow Needs a Girl” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (1947).

For The Donkey Serenade, see this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyHNlfT6B9E&feature=related.

With apologies to Rudolf Friml and the lyricist who named this delightful 1936 song to a mule (mules being the infertile progeny of horse and donkey!), my blog will try to pull together what may seem utterly disparate themes: the pseudo-scientific Buffett Rule (cooked up by POTUS), the related notion of “the fair share” (another Obama Revival of an old refrain), Melville’s Whale Song, and the fairy tales of Oscar Hammerstein II, the State as love object, Tales of the South Pacific and its spin-offs, Oscar Hammerstein’s mom, and Romance as the glue that holds society and psyche together. Can this odd chorus line have legs? Maybe it will be too non-linear for some readers.

But first, a nod to the “Whale Song” with which Melville ended the Extracts to Moby-Dick: “Oh, the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.” In the first (London) edition, these are the last (ironic, surely) word in the text, whereas in the American edition, numerous changes were made: Melville added an Epilogue allowing Ishmael the narrator to survive, and the Extracts were moved almost to the front of the novel. This makes a huge difference, for the notion that “might is right” encompasses the greatest debate in world history. That is, Leviathan (or the State, not a good thing in Melville’s view—see his chapter  “The Whiteness of the Whale” and the several quotes from Hobbes in the Extracts) defines what is and what is not moral or just, what is a right and what is a duty, universalist ethics be damned.

So if the President, bereft of rational reasons to drastically increase taxation upon “the rich” trots out “the fair share” meme, are we not entitled to look back on the phrase’s emotional resonances? I asked my Facebook friends to riff on what they thought “fair share” means, and the responses varied, but several mentioned parental apportionment of toys to siblings. It is my view that when people hear the phrase “fair share” they respond as a child might, resentful of the attention given either to older or younger siblings, and wanting the parents to “level the playing field” through “sharing” or “redistribution.” Of course Marxists ostensibly live by the rule “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” but that was so abstract as to justify the allocation of resources by whatever bureaucrat was in charge of the command economy du jour. Catholicism after Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum partly echoed this view in order to stave off a repetition of Jacobin-style red revolution.

[From the King James Bible, 1 Corinthians,13:11] “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (The next line warns, I suppose, that we shall not see clearly, either the world or ourselves, until we meet Christ face to face in heaven. These are not my views, but the proposition is one with which Melville struggled all during his writing career, for instance in the opposition of Ishmael and Ahab. Paul’s is a warning against empiricism/materialism/vanity, while Ishmael’s survival strikes a blow for piety and submission to the King of the Sea. As for the Promethean and antiracist/abolitionist Ahab, he was out for the truth, and hurled his defiance at Kings and Churches who would block his vision.)

Assimilated and Christianized as Oscar Hammerstein’s family undoubtedly was, young Oscar held tight to his favorite things, especially to the lost beautiful gentile mother (of Scottish and English descent), who not only died during his adolescence, but put him out to live with other relatives when her second child was born, for her health was fragile.

Although postwar theater critics made much of Oscar Hammerstein’s preternatural sympathy for “the common man” including “people whose eyes are oddly made,” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4cqTBA6L44*) his collaborations with Richard Rodgers have nothing to with the hard-bitten naturalism and realism of nineteenth century authors and painters, let alone the rough, modernist songs of Brecht and Weill (and somewhat carried forth by the ever disillusioned Stephen Sondheim). Rather, Hammerstein was a fabulist, whose ever-praised “integration” of words and music or stage dialogue with musical numbers was not about adult love at all, but rather about the lost paradise of his mother’s touch and attention. Such favorites of his and his biographers tell the story: “What’s The Use of Wond’rin’” (Carousel) and “A Fellow Needs a Girl” (Allegro). The object of the male’s fantasy life is the “girl” who mirrors back his idealized self, while “all the rest is talk”. As for the paradisaical Bali Ha’i, that is the wet dream of the sexually repressed James Michener, whose famed Pulitzer Prize winning “tales” drastically distorted the real lives of characters he met as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and who were further reshaped in the greatest musical ever, R & H’s South Pacific (1949).

Betta St. John and Tabbert

To wind up this blog, the major theme of the modern musical theater is Romance (including the return of the lost object: the beautiful mother who has spread her attention too broadly), and is now realized in the formerly forbidden theme of miscegenation, which can apply to class as well as race.  By appealing to the audience’s longing for an impossible unity (of the fragments of self, of classes and “races” and genders and sexual preference), popular culture makes “healing” and “unity” not a distant paradise, but a possibility in the here and now, should we elect another Democratic (progressive) President, one who attains family harmony through a yearly potlatch on April 15. And who enforces this fantastic cohesion of self and society? Who else but Leviathan and the Rule of [reformed] Buffett? Such are the skills of the new, new Promethean. (For more on Lieutenant Cable and unity, see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.

*In the original Tales of the South Pacific, the Princetonian and Philadelphian Lt. Cable can’t bring himself to marry the Tonkinese Liat, ever, but in the R& H musical, that renunciation of his class and “race” takes place, to the consternation of those who called it a communistic play. Of course, in all versions of South Pacific, Cable is killed off, but the solidarity of humanity, along with its ethos of self-sacrifice for the good of “the People” is reaffirmed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

Block, Jeffrey. Richard Rodgers. New Haven and London, 2003.

Ewen, David. Richard Rodgers. N.Y. 1957.

Fordin, Hugh. Getting to Know Him. N.Y. 1977.

May, Stephen J. Michener’s South Pacific. Gainesville Fla. 2011.

Michener, James. Tales of the South Pacific. N.Y. 1947.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: a Life. N.Y.  1998.

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