YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 31, 2012

Censorship, bohemia, and the Big Sleep

Haruhi Gothic Lolita

Having announced that I was thinking of writing a new blog on censorship in the arts and in the media, numerous Facebook friends sent me comments expressing their own disgust with the mass media, with the ineffective ratings system that fails to protect children from exposure to excessive violence, and with the general coarsening of our culture.

In prior blogs, I have complained mightily about what I perceive to be a loss of standards throughout the culture, sometimes focusing on primitivism, rappers, Tom Wolfe’s genteel variant of primitivism (https://clarespark.com/2011/09/08/getting-down-with-tom-wolfe/), and the Great Dumbing Down. One friend starts the dumbing down with the revolts of the 1960s, and there is something to be said for that turning point. Another blames the movies and mass culture in general. Many believe that the Aurora massacre was stimulated at least in part by the increasing violence of Hollywood movies. Indeed, I had already noticed the disturbing abundance of horror movies directed to adolescents. What was the appeal, I wondered, and still can’t answer that, other than speculating that youngsters are terrified of the modern world in ways that have not been adequately described: Feeling perhaps impotent in the face of predators, they Identify with the Aggressor, to use a once well-known Freudian formulation.

What could I possibly add to this discussion now, I wonder? In the past, I argued that cultural radicalism was not only wrong-headed, but a distraction from other questions that were not focused solely on sex and violence or political correctness.  I had insisted that the idea that words and images created reality for readers and viewers was in itself deeply ideological. But I did not dismiss the power of propaganda, but rather pointed out that popular explanations for the rise of Hitler among allies to the Roosevelt administration had blamed mass culture as the primary explanation for the bond of Hitler with the German people, thus discarding political errors, economics, and diplomacy. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/.)

I must say the same for the rowdy arts, whether found in pop culture or in the highest reaches of Kultur. While bohemians were kicking up their heels and converting adolescents to drugs, sex, and rock and roll as transformative politics, petit-bourgeois media reformers wanted positive images of their group, acting on the belief that “role models” (and “inclusion”) would repair grave deficiencies in education or family life. But these same reformers were reinforcing ethnic or racial ties, thus undermining the search for explanations of poverty that are more properly found in political and economic institutions, not just “discourses.”

Since the days of Plato and Aristotle, intellectuals have been fighting over the effects of pornography: Plato would have banished poets from the Republic, while Aristotle believed that catharsis through the arousal of pity and terror would keep the masses in line. I adhere to neither of these philosophies. Either we have a marketplace of ideas or we do not. What matters is the critical context surrounding controversial works of art or other toys and entertainments. Sadly, perhaps disastrously, the “critics” and other explicators of cultural artifacts tend to share the same ideology as those who produce the “edgier” pieces, and leave the field to those whose own sensibilities are disgusted  by “vanguard” works. Hence, our culture is impoverished. Vanguard artists and critics stand together, while “philistines” remain bemused and angry. The feedback loop is thus severed and everyone loses.

But more, what may be decisive is the deliberate silence around certain issues; e.g. the increasing acceptance of sadomasochism, Satanism, misogyny and antisemitism, or the opacity of governments, or the widely held belief that there is no truth, or the power of some families to screw up their kids, or limited interest in the great issues of our time, such as the causes of mass death in the 20th century—a subject that has been hitherto dominated by left-leaning statists with designs on the public.

vagina dentata vampire shoes

May 10, 2012

Androgyny, with an aside on Edna Ferber

Kleo, by Kremena Ivanova

“Receptiveness is a rare and massive power, like fortitude; and this state of mind now gave Deronda’s face its utmost expression of calm benignant force—“  [Ch.24,  Daniel Deronda, 1876, by George Eliot, nom de plume for Marianne Evans]

I read a lot, but rarely does a sentence such as George Eliot’s stick in my mind as a life lesson. I’m not sure we mean the same thing by “fortitude” (its religious meaning is to soldier on as vessels of God’s will), but if she means a kind of courage and honor that women usually attribute to men, then I am with her in her suggestion of androgyny. For every artistic person must combine the qualities often assigned either to men (fortitude) or to women (receptiveness).

In reading and teaching the literature of the past, militantly gay academics, journalists, and critics, have detected closeted gays in 19th century literature. We were not there, so cannot evaluate such annexations to the (male) gay project, but in the case of Herman Melville, it is possible that he was simply androgynous, blending the receptiveness and fortitude recommended by George Eliot. Melville’s British admirer, James Thomson (“B.V.”), was thinking of Eliot when Thomson wrote his famously pessimistic poem “The City of Dreadful Night”: the Queen who ruled this godless, desperate place, was none other than Eliot! See my essay https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/, where I quote an interchange between Thomson and Eliot, also from his poetry. For misogynistic images linking Gorgon, vagina dentata, and androgynes as Pierrot figures, see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/assorted-degenerates/.

In the past month or so, I have been reading some of the major novels of a 20th century successor to George Eliot, the famed best-selling author Edna Ferber (1885-1968) who, unlike George Eliot, never shacked up with a man (Eliot’s love was Goethe biographer George Henry Lewes, 1817-1878). Indeed, Ferber’s spinsterhood is in doubt among some younger critics, who deduce that she must have been a lesbian. But in the case of Ferber, it is crucial to go back to her texts and to her autobiography in order to evaluate her status as a feminist and antiracist avant la lettre.

I have read in this order, Showboat (1926), Giant (1952), So Big (1924), and her first autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure (1938), also Ferber (1978),  a semi-debunking biography by her great niece Julie Goldsmith Gilbert, who reveals her as a closet racist, and a mother- and-sister-hater, as well as a probable lover of several men. In the 1938 autobiography, though she has been writing as a regionalist and a friend to the “common man”, she suddenly comes out as an indignant ueber-Jew, furious with Hitler for Kristallnacht. And yet, she rejects her father, the small businessman (of Eastern Europe extraction and owner of a dry-goods store) in favor of her German Jewish ancestry through mother, which is ever so much more aristocratic in their tastes. Her most appalling villain is a New England Puritan (with all the Hebraic characteristics assigned to them), “Parthy”—Magnolia’s penny-pinching mother in Showboat.

It happens that aristocratic women in Europe were not only educated, but were influential behind the scenes, if we are to believe the 19th Century novels of Benjamin Disraeli, who glorifies and adores them (see https://clarespark.com/2011/05/04/disraelis-captive-queens/) . Similarly, in Ferber, her female heroines are remarkably persevering, outspoken, and progressive in all their social views; they are autodidacts like herself; they also are not great beauties. But most remarkably, they conquer their hidebound conservative antagonists with wit, compassion, endurance, and the power of their arguments, i.e., they are admitted to boy’s clubs to take off the rough edges. Would that all outspoken women were so persuasive, or all plain women so beloved by men.

In real life, Ferber adopted all the traits of the traditional woman eager to please various establishments: she had a nose job, was a fashion plate, threw herself into home decoration, gourmet food, and grand dinner parties; but most importantly, ingratiated herself with the leading WASP progressives and assimilated Jewish businessmen-artists (such as “Dicky” Rogers or his half-Jewish collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II, whose lyrics could not be more traditional in the subordination of women to men). As an aesthete and a moralist, Ferber lived out the European tradition of the aristocratic woman who pulls the strings behind the scenes. Or was she the puppet of social forces and inner drives that she had yet to master? (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.)

On the illustration: the two white lines on the right of the image are probably damage to the post card I scanned, advertising a student art show at El Camino College.

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