YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 13, 2013

Victor Hugo’s “93” and Condorcet

Hugoquatrevingt-treize_The French Revolution at its most Jacobin extreme has been appropriated by Communists as a great bourgeois revolution that laid the groundwork for the absolutist morality of subsequent revolutions. This is a dangerous error for persons of libertarian beliefs, who also think kindly of progress, anti-racist policies, market economies, and feminism.

Hugo’s last novel, 93, published in 1874, lays out the moral quandaries of various factions in the French Revolution. It is notable that Ayn Rand admired this novel, and it affected her own We The Living (1937, see my blog https://clarespark.com/2011/01/12/ayn-rands-we-the-living/).

In my view, Hugo is aligned in this book that focuses on the moral quandary of the civil war in France (the French Revolution centered in Paris, as opposed by the rural Vendée), with the anti-capital punishment of the Marquis de Condorcet, whose advanced Enlightenment ideas have yet to be realized in our own times. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninety-Three and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquis_de_Condorcet .

Here is a key passage in the Hugo novel in which a ci-devant aristocrat, a fighter for the Republic, Gauvain, argues with his beloved teacher Cimourdain, who has gone over to Robespierre, Danton, and Marat as they operated in the Committee for Public Safety.

[Cimourdain:] One day, the Revolution will be the justification of this Terror.

[Gauvain:] Beware lest the Terror become the calumny of the Revolution. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,—these are the dogmas of peace and harmony. Why give them an alarming aspect? What is it we want? To bring the peoples to a universal republic. Well, do not let us make them afraid. What can intimidation serve? The people can no more be attracted by a scarecrow than birds can. One must  not do evil to bring about good; one does not overturn the throne in order to leave the gibbet standing. Death to kings, and life to nations! Strike off the crowns; spare the heads! The Revolution is concord, not fright.  Clement ideas are ill-served by cruel men. Amnesty is to me the most beautiful word in human language. I will only shed blood in risking my own.  Besides, I simply know how to fight. I am nothing but a soldier. But if I may not pardon, victory is not worth the trouble it costs. During battle let us be the enemies of our enemies, and after victory, their brothers.

[Cimourdain:] Take care!

At the end, Hugo’s novel starts to look like Melville’s Billy Budd (not published until 1924, but written between 1886-91). The same moral quandary is revealed, and the Melville dénouement somewhat resembles the ending of the Hugo novel. Gauvain liberates his Royalist ancestor the ci-devant Marquis de Lantenac (only because the aristocrat risked his life to rescue three peasant tots in a fire), and after a strenuous argument with his conscience, subsequently offering his own life instead. Cimourdain, as a representative of the Jacobins, condemns the court-martialed Gauvain to the guillotine, but then takes his own life from remorse at having violated the higher law. (In Billy Budd, Captain Vere’s enigmatic last words as he lies dying from a shot from The Athée are “Billy Budd.”)

In the series Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Bobby Goren, often read as demonic by the critics, opposes capital punishment, but must serve the superiority of the Law above people. Read the interaction between Cimourdain and Gauvain, for it is a persistent theme in American culture. Even in our supposedly anti-Stalinist democracy, we struggle with the same paradox. And Hugo’s final published novel is a page-turner, and completely absorbing, free from the long digressions of Les Misérables.

La Torgue castle

La Torgue castle

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June 15, 2013

Decoding Les Miserables and the superhero

les_miserables_ver11One of the first distinctions taught me by Alexander Saxton, my adviser at UCLA (and confirmed by other scholars) was that a drastic transformation had taken place between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the wake of the American and French Revolutions: that the politics of family and deference to one’s “betters” had given way to “mass politics,” symbolized most famously by the log cabin campaigns of Andrew Jackson and his successors in the Jeffersonian agrarian tradition. Federalists (like Washington and Hamilton) were out and democrats were in, even if they held slaves and adored Sir Walter Scott’s romances.

This point is lost on those who blame mass politics and mass culture (both supposedly appealing to the irrational mob) for all the dictatorships of the 20th century. Among these was George Orwell, whose Nineteen Eighty Four is unintelligible without taking into account the new technology that enabled the successful snooping of Big Brother. Similarly, the Frankfurt School critical theorists blame technology and bureaucratic rationality (i.e., modernity as controlled by irreligious mass culture) for the Holocaust.

Nor without “traditional” fear of the undeferential masses can we understand the turn toward the classic tradition advanced by Robert Maynard Hutchins and his ‘moderate’ colleagues, who, as early as 1939, hoped to reinstate deference to a natural aristocracy to defeat the atheistic reds, as well as the latter’s despised campaigns against racism and antisemitism,  and their glorification of the common man. Today these [red or pink] villains are called “secular progressives”–perhaps a code word for “the Jews.”  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/.)

I have spent the last several weeks plowing through Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), a melodrama so appealing that it was adapted for both stage and film. What I most strongly take away from this monstrosity of a tale/sermon/philosophical treatise/military history is Hugo’s attempt to make himself, the reactionary Romantic, the true superhero of the tome. It is he who kills off his rival in fatherly strength and determination, Jean Valjean at the end, leaving himself, the author, as the major survivor. On display throughout are Hugo’s ostentatious learning, deference to God as the prime mover of human events, the efficacy of a change of heart in redeeming criminals, ingenious plotting, and detailed descriptions of the Paris poor, their furniture, rags, songs, and schemes including early nineteenth century French insurrections/émeutes. The epic novel is a reproach to Prometheus and his Enlightenment offspring, though many of its images are poetic and memorable. [For more on Hugo and the Prometheans see https://clarespark.com/2013/08/13/victor-hugos-93-and-condorcet/.]

"Victor Hugo en mage"

“Victor Hugo en mage”

Hugo, no less than Jean Valjean threading his way through the treacherous Paris sewers with the wounded lawyer Marius on his back, is navigating his way between monarchism and republicanism, taking us back to the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church advanced the higher law that invariably trumped earthly “pettifoggers.”  Amor Vincit Omnia. Ask Robert Maynard Hutchins and the other pseudo-moderate men.

British production

British production

It is so ironic that during last year’s Tony Awards (referring to 2011 productions), members of the Broadway musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel, presented themselves as revolutionaries and republicans singing “One Day More” (http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/lesmiserables/onedaymore.htm)  as if the author, without ambivalence,  favored republican principles and the mass politics that enabled them in Europe and America.  Hugo was no Marat, no ami du peuple. Rather, the escape artist (like both Valjean and Thenardier) was torn between his parents whose politics were opposed to one another. Hugo chose absolutism, not the stern Hebraic demand to choose inside a dualistic world.*

But don’t tell that to the post 1960s back-to-nature generation, like Victor Hugo, those stalwart enemies to “jewified” modernity, held to be masked, ambiguous, and unintelligible (with the exception of geniuses like himself). For many, Les Misérables is the Communist Manifesto of social democracy, but with a variation. It appears that God and the State have merged. The State, assuming the status of a deity, is the author of human events. The Good King is back, and the Good King is a superhero. (For a related recent blog see https://clarespark.com/2013/05/30/nostalgia-for-the-middle-ages/.)

*I am indebted to Steve Chocron for this point about Judaism and the necessity constantly to choose the right path when all choices are fraught with ambiguity.

May 30, 2013

Nostalgia for the “Middle Ages”

old tapestry(Update: there is a big fight among academics as to whether or not the late Middle Ages were not the true originators of science and great art. New Left and Catholic scholars seem to be in the vanguard of this move. The arguments are very heated, and suggest many persons reject modernity/mass politics/technology/machines, unless they can be reconciled with religion, particularly Catholicism or its hybrids. The Greens, who merge with Nature (as opposed to modern domination of Nature) might be considered as romantic medievalists.)

New Republic literary critic Leon Wieseltier was quoted in the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, May 29, 2013 as “Notable and Quotable.” These excerpts were taken from the commencement speech delivered by Wieseltier at Brandeis University on May 19, which warned students not to yield to the blandishments of science and technology.: “There is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the two imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction—once bitterly contested, then generally accepted , now almost completely forgotten—between the study of nature and the study of man.  …You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history—you are the stewards of that quality….Perhaps culture is now the counterculture. “

Wieseltier believes that this “saving remnant” will protect us against “the twittering acceleration of American consciousness….” [What on earth does he mean by that?]

This imprecation to drastically sever the link between the study of man with the study of nature, coupled with his nod to “religion” rhymes very well with the occasional turn to medievalism at such bastions of ex-leftist or populist thinking as Pajamas Media (see http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2013/05/28/video-in-defense-of-the-middle-ages/, seen also on the Dennis Prager “university” http://www.prageruniversity.com/History/Were-the-Middle-Ages-Dark.html. These videos are based on the work of Anthony Esolen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_M._Esolen)   It has been my position as both a student of intellectual history (with a strong interest in art and literary history), that the freethinking individual was unknown and often burned at the stake for daring to deviate from the rules laid down by medieval and even Renaissance priests and monarchs.

weapons-of-middle-ages

The Promethean impulse was sorely punished before the Enlightenment, and even Voltaire had to publish anonymously. And that pioneer Spinoza was hounded as a heretic for his materialist philosophy that joined Man with Nature and for his support of the short-lived but pathbreaking Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.

But what is most disturbing, almost laughable, is Wieseltier’s posture as a revolutionary naysayer to the most advanced democracy in the history of our species, when he comes out as a diehard reactionary. Perhaps he likes girls with long tresses. The Middle Ages lingered into the 19th century with the vogue for William Morris craftsmanship, or before his ascendancy, the prestige of the Pre-Raphaelites, now in revival as a protest against the “desecration of nature.”

A contemporary version of Archangel Raphael

A contemporary version of Archangel Raphael

The real Middle Ages were a period of anarchy and arbitrary authority, localism,  interminable warfare, short life expectancy, institutionalized Jew-hatred, material deprivation, and slavery to powerful overlords, whose control over the lower orders was reinforced by “religion” that Wieseltier lauds as the proper study of his new counterculture (note that he does not distinguish between religions at odds with each other and with secularism. Such vagueness is typical of the moderate men who do not want anyone to be angry with them).  The centuries of struggle and sacrifice that brought us to pluralist, secularized modernity should not be so casually overturned by Brandeis University and its supportive media institutions. As for the study of cultural artifacts that Wieseltier recommends, it is not so easily accomplished as he imagines. Art works do not speak for themselves: they are always positioned against competing ideas and rules: look to their patrons and you will find the key to their artworks. Indeed, one of the great neglected themes in Melville scholarship (and the same might be said for his contemporary Victor Hugo) is ambivalence, as artists struggle with themselves either to accept or reject their freedom to write as they feel, for social cohesion is at stake, including their own interior conflicts that they imagine can hurl them into the abyss of poverty and artistic failure. (Melville’s father-in-law was Lemuel Shaw, a conservative Whig and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, also his patron.)

There is much to be criticized in this modern world, but its defects are not traceable to the “imperialism” of science and technology, but to the reactionary forces that thought that the transition from feudalism to capitalism could be managed without quality mass education and the preservation of the individual conscience and its rights as institutionalized in the First Amendment to the American Constitution. I remember Dr. Henry A. Murray, mind-manager extraordinaire, complaining about religious pluralism because the very fact that some had different belief systems suggested that one’s own religion  might be fallible. Such self-doubt (often described as ambiguity) fostered social division, not the desired social cohesion. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/03/26/henry-a-murray-and-the-tat/, or https://clarespark.com/2014/12/29/the-leader-principle/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/.) Is it any wonder that so many artists and writers must write under a mask, simply to express their inner selves?Mask-SuttonHoo7thC

August 5, 2012

Hating finance capital

Big Money crushing the People

Much of this website has been devoted to decoding “liberal” propaganda, especially the repetitive strains of populism that will constitute the Democratic Party playbook in 2012 as we move toward an election that will either push us yet further on the path to communism or dirigisme (a form of elite rule where the state not only regulates the economy but directs investment), or that will reverse course and could restore the American economy along more laissez-faire lines. The rhetoric of “families” can be seen as entirely about collectivist identities, or it can be seen, also, as a plea to corporations to look upon their employees as children whose demands should be met through further concessions. The index that follows is only a small portion of what has been my major concern: the authoritarian character of American political culture since the New Deal. Sadly, Popular Front politics have masked the penetration of communist and other statist ideas into the mainstream political discourse.

In sum, the State exists to cage the octopus of “finance capital.” That is the unifying theme of today’s “progressives” and before that, the Progressive movement: such populist scapegoating provides a bogus image of unity in fragmented societies. And recall that Hitler thought that the Soviets were not really socialists like himself, but were the puppets of “finance capital” a.k.a. the Jews.

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/ (David Brooks separates populism from progressivism, which is wrong.)

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/

https://clarespark.com/2009/12/16/perceptions-of-the-enemy-the-left-looks-at-the-right-and-vice-versa/

https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/

https://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/

https://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/25/the-state-of-the-union-stinks/

https://clarespark.com/2012/06/03/connecting-vs-connecting-the-dots/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/19/communist-ideas-go-mainstream/

https://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multiculturalism-blogs/ (On German Romantic predecessors to political correctness)

https://clarespark.com/2013/06/15/the-politics-of-family-vs-mass-politics-altered/ (retitled Decoding Les Miserables and the superhero)

December 16, 2009

Perceptions of the enemy: The “Left” looks at the “Right” and vice-versa

 
 [Added 1-10-11: This blog is about rhetoric on both sides of the great divide over statism and the New Deal. But it is not my view that the incident in Tucson is about hate speech at all, but about the failure to prevent such atrocities owing to a malfunctioning mental health-law enforcement establishment.] [Added 3-5-11: I am wondering if some Republicans are reacting to Democratic Party accusations that they are grinding the face of the poor and of the hard-working “middle class” by excessive politeness and silence, for instance in not fully explaining state initiatives in Wisconsin and Ohio that would rein in public sector unions, letting the opposition control public opinion.]
  

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1990

Some mistaken identities.

I don’t think that some “Right-wing” partisans understand Leftists, often conflating revolutionary socialists, anarchists, and [anticommunist] social democrats. And yet media pundits constantly refer to “the Left” as if it still existed in its historic 19th and 20th century red-hot formulations and in the same numbers. What is lost is the memory of moderate conservatives or conservative reformers like FDR (descendants of New Dealers, now called “the Left”) and their practices of lopping off those who were to their left, that is, the structural reformers, unless there was a “Popular Front” against looming internal and external fascism, as did exist from 1935 until the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939.  At what point did these “moderate conservatives” as they called themselves  metamorphose into “the Left” as sole defenders of the little guy? I am guessing around 1919 (but following antimodern protest such as Victor Hugo’s melodramatic Les Misérables in the late 19th century). More on that another time, or see chapter two of my book on the Melville revival or my blog on Disraeli’s contribution to social democracy (https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/).

From long experience with leftists and the entire socialist-communist-social democratic traditions, however, despite their sharp differences in goals and tactics, I can generalize about them as follows:  All factions of “the Left” believe themselves to be the true bearers of morality and that conservatives are heartless fascist* murderers. By contrast, as progressives they see themselves as sacrificing their own personalities, economic interests, and happiness for “the public good” or “suffering humanity”; to be one of them, you must “stand with the oppressed,” even if that means helping Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, they seek to uplift those whom “the Right” (e.g. Israel) knowingly and viciously victimizes. And many prominent “liberals” may accomplish this grand goal “by any means necessary (e.g. hear the cry of 1960s black nationalists or see Trey Ellis in HuffPo, 12-16: “The Obama administration needs to course-correct immediately. He needs to make a series of bold, muscular, ruthlessly political moves immediately (reconciliation anyone?) to put the fear of god into all those puny adversaries out there that have been pushing him around with impunity”).  So they are the true humanitarians in their own eyes and the antitheses of the “fascists” they valiantly oppose.

Also, do not minimize both continuities and ruptures between the factions of what is loosely called “the Left.” Anyone who has studied or had contact with revolutionary socialists knows about their history of sectarianism. It makes Protestantism look demure and pure. They have killed or sacrificed  each other without hesitation: just look at what the Stalinists did to Trotskyists and Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, or the notorious Stalin purges of his former comrades, not to speak of other communists with Jewish backgrounds, a process that ceased only with his death in 1953. But mixing them in with social democrats is absurd, for the motley Marxist-Leninists inhabit mostly such outposts as Pacifica Radio, a few journals, and increasingly-criticized departments of comparative literature and other humanities.

But most crucially, “right-wing social democrats” (as some Leftists call them, distinguishing them from the Second International left-wing social democrats favoring incremental reforms on the way to socialism) have an entirely different lineage from the Marxist-Leninists.  As I have shown in other blogs, European aristocrats, following Bismarck and before that, reformers in Great Britain, “christianized” the new [“jewified”] industrial society with social insurance that we now call the welfare state. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/29/the-enigmatic-face-of-philosemitism/.)

Stand-ins for the controlling parent? Conservatives must read their antagonists without caricatures and without mistaking their objectives.  Revolutionary socialists and social democrats are not simply “elitists” who think they know what is best for others (though many think that “the Right” is not only monolithic, but racist, selfish, square, dumb, Islamophobic, xenophobic, indifferent to environmental degradation, gun-totin’ and fanatical, unlike, say, those who run National Public Radio, while many on the Right return the favor, frequently lumping all leftists and social democrats together as elitist conspirators/fascists–Glenn Beck for instance, though I am finding his analysis of increasing statism consistent with a view of the Obama administration as stealth Leninists). It is more complicated than that, though reds and “liberals” do favor various degrees of statism/redistribution to rectify social inequities and achieve what all call “social justice.” In the end, we could make the public discourse on politics more rational by specifying competing theories of the good society:

Libertarians find wealth creation through free markets a good thing and, in the case of the better educated, believe that the state should protect this process through sound monetary policy. The social democratic Left (a.k.a. the moderate men, see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/) sees the state as planning rationally to compensate for what they believe to be a weak and unstable system: capitalism. Nothing is so scary as great gaps between rich and poor, for that portends another bloody French Revolution. If that means that everyone is relatively poor in the quasi-socialist utopia, such asceticism is better than the suffering of the victims du jour while the ever libertine rich feast and thoughtlessly indulge their animal appetites for glitter and other luxuries, hence “bourgeoisifying,” i.e., corrupting, the tastes and desires of the working-class who are now beset by “false consciousness.” And some conservatives, angry combatants in the culture wars, even as they invoke the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers, seek to impose their own morality on those who don’t share the same “values,” (e.g. pro-life, anti-gay marriage, opposition to stem-cell research using frozen embryos, creationism or intelligent design, the superiority of a rural way of life to decadent cities), thus nullifying the separation of Church and State that has served us so well. But I caution my readers who remain somewhere on “the Left” that conservatives are not evil or demented when they find such developments as the hyper-sexualization of women and children to be dangerous and destructive, or wonder, as I do, how it happened that sadomasochism became acceptable, even fashionable. And remember that Lord Maynard Keynes thought that his measures to relieve a depression were not to be permanently institutionalized.

POPULISM. According to Rasmussen Reports, 55% of the American public is populist, i.e., they believe that government and big business are in cahoots, which makes sense if you understand that small business and big business are in conflict. Interestingly given our generally anticommunist polity, this is the analysis of the Marxist-Leninist Left: the state is an executive committee of the big bourgeoisie (as opposed to the state being an independent institution with its own interests, see sociologist Michael Mann’s books). Populism is a subject I have written about extensively on this website. It claims to speak for “the people” against “the special interests” or “Wall Street” or “the military-industrial complex” or some other dread agglomeration such as “the Jews” or “white males.”As such, it speaks to class resentments and is irrational. Whether of the Left or of the Right, populism is not good for analyzing concrete institutions and their policies. Moreover, as indicated above, it does not distinguish between fractions of those who make decisions for the rest of us, each of which has different and possibly clashing interests with others in the so-called “ruling class.” Populists are incapable of writing accurate histories, but seem content to follow their leaders. And their leaders, insofar as they resort to demagoguery, don’t really care about “the folks.” (Who are the folks? Rural residents and small producers or small businessmen, or these and the industrial working class, including those in the state sector or service occupations? It is this vagueness that marks the demagogue. For more precise definitions of populist demagoguery and its techniques see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/10/index-to-blogs-on-populist-demagoguery/, or Lowenthal and Guterman’s book on right-wing agitators, still valid.)

*Contending definitions of “fascism.” By “fascists” the social democratic ‘left’ generally means a society practicing “laissez-faire” economics, militarism, hypernationalism (“national chauvinism”), the manipulation of public opinion through heavy-handed propaganda, and imperialism/racism. This absolves social democracy of continuities or comparisons with statist fascism and Nazism, not to speak of their zealousness in attacking “rugged individualism,” the American unpardonable sin that is imagined to persist beyond the pioneer period. By contrast, revolutionary socialists generally refer to the rule of finance capital or monopoly capital or “late capitalism” when they write of fascism and Nazism. Social democrats, true to their Platonic Guardian-philosopher-king heritage, tend to see fascism as the revolt of the masses, as noted above. Much psychiatry/psychoanalysis seeks to manage these “id-forces” and may be more powerful than we think in influencing the medical culture of postwar America. For more on the practice of psychoanalysis at a distance, see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/. The importance of the father as leader and as commander of a tight militarized family unit with high morale cannot be overemphasized, a point forcefully made in the last section of the blog just cited, where I analyze the politics of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. I am all for keeping the family together, but caution against families keeping their children in a regressed state of mind, that is, either in a state of hero-worship (idealization) or of demonizing “the enemy.” The sane alternative is to look at competing interests, policies, and programs with enough detachment to take on the responsibilities of citizenship in a would-be democratic republic, examining a warring world characterized by every kind of uneven development.

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