YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 1, 2014

The Hunger Games trilogy: reactionary and postmodern

Catching_Fire_Katniss_Everdeen_WallpaperI am going to try not to have any spoilers in this blog, so will be more general in my critique than usual.

I have now read all three volumes of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, at the request of my daughter Jenny who studied with Jacques Derrida and Samuel Weber, champion promoters of postmodernism. It was she who made the connection between the film version of The Hunger Games and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, especially in its posing of the question “Real or Fake?”

Before this latest read, I had thought primarily of the anticapitalist, antimodern aspect of postmodernism: its emphasis on indeterminacy/uncertainty, the fallibility of the human senses, its critique of science as a bourgeois plot to snare the unwary mass man and woman (misappropriating Thomas Kuhn), but above all its assault on the ordinary, overly credulous reader of “texts.” And for the “pomo” everything is a text to be “deconstructed” for the purpose of revealing the silences of official language, the relevant clues pushed to the margins or entirely submerged. I find postmodern theory useful in many cases; see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/08/postmodernism-cultural-pluralism-and-the-will-to-power/–retitled “Reading between the lines.” Also https://clarespark.com/2014/08/07/modernity-versus-modernism/.

Postmodernists believe they are enablers of the voices that have been submerged by official inhuman modern cultures—worshippers of consumerism and nature-killing technology. Hence their primitivism, celebration of the archaic and/or tradition (potlatches!), including the empirical wisdom of hunting societies, but also peasant cunning and use of herbal remedies for injuries and disease, and above all the celebration of Greek popular culture as I laid out here: https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/.

Especially read this paragraph:”Think of the good king, the paternalistic welfare state, the touching loyalty of its servants, fatalism, magic, the intervention of wise god figures in daily life (grey-eyed Athena or a wise Latina), superheroes, shape-changing creatures, gorgeous tall women and men, the glitter of gold and silver along with artisanal triumphs designed for the aristocracy, the increasing blending of gymnastics with dance, but most of all, the aestheticization of violence that Walter Benjamin described as the culture of fascism and Nazism in his famous defense of modern mass media “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.” Writing at the same time as Freeman and Crossman, Benjamin declared that such artists as Marinetti had glorified war to the point where humanity was contemplating its own destruction as an aesthetic experience. What would Benjamin have said about the humanizing beauty of Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors and the female slaves who had slept with them?– A slaughter that left the poet in awe of the “lion” figure of Odysseus, covered as he was with the blood and gore of his enemies.”

Has not Suzanne Collins aestheticized violence in her trilogy? And why do so many of our young people live without hope, expecting to die young?

During the second wave of feminism, there was a strong tendency on behalf of matriarchy and Amazon- or Goddess worship: the long-dead and discredited Bachofen was de rigueur in some circles. The left feminists thought that goddesses were bogus and reactionary, but to the extent that the audience for The Hunger Games is “feminist,” it is the goddess-worshipping counter-cultural tendency that has prevailed.

Suzanne Collins, a Roman Catholic and an admirer of Greek antiquity, the daughter of an officer in the Viet Nam war, probably set out to write a dystopian novel attacking war, income inequality, and modern mind-control, in the spirit of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. But she has instead arguably added to modern paranoia, and undermined the confidence of the ordinary people she ostensibly wishes to protect, like the Übermenschen (Gale, Peeta, and Katniss), oddly (given the multicultural times we live in), all white people of apparently Northern European extraction. (And who are the agricultural workers in District 11, obviously all black people, like Katniss’s pet “Rue”?)

By naming the President of the rebels “Coin,” Collins takes her place among petit-bourgeois populists of the past.

Prometheus, once the friend of humanity, is vanquished, along with world-destroying and Nazified industrial capitalism: Oh so “Green” Katniss Everdeen has taken their places. Has anyone noticed that the novels and movies are culture war events that deserve our close attention, especially as its target audience won’t know how to read its sub-text? For more on reactionary nostalgia see https://clarespark.com/2014/05/03/elie-kedouries-nationalism-am-i-stumped/ (retitled “The Good Old Days”).

The author in her favorite color

The author in her favorite color


August 6, 2012

Gellhorn’s “blind spot” on Israel

Caroline Moorehead

[For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/16/the-social-history-racket/.]

According to Martha Gellhorn’s most prestigious biographer, Caroline Moorehead (a champion of “human rights”), Gellhorn, the famed war correspondent and novelist (1908-1998), was dead wrong in her enthusiasm for the Jewish state, an error that Moorehead seems fixated upon in her much lauded biography of 2003, for she does not hesitate to dilate upon her own under-researched opinions on the history of Israel and its conflict with the “Palestinians” and Israel’s neighbors.  (I have been rereading Moorehead’s biography and another feminist study of MG. It was not Moorehead, but British leftist “Rosie Boycott” who used the term “blind spot.” Moorehead does report that in time, MG came to see Israelis as “arrogant and boorish.” This was solely CM’s characterization of MG’s letter to Robert Presnell in 1967. These words not in quotation marks.)

What is perhaps most striking is that Gellhorn, who did have some Jewish ancestry, had no apparent Jewish identity until she was present at the liberation of Dachau, and was struck down by the visible presence of evil, evil of such magnitude that her prior faith in human perfectibility (inherited from her parents, especially Edna) was shot forever. Indeed, the recent HBO film (Hemingway and Gellhorn) uses archival footage of Dachau’s victims, and then affixes the face of Nicole Kidman (playing Gellhorn) upon one of the victims in the pit of corpses, suggesting that this might be some kind of awakening or turning point for MG. (In the just-issued DVD and Blue-Ray edition of the movie, this latter scene is edited out, and we see MG fleeing into the woods, instead. There will be nothing about MG’s attachment to Israel in the HBO script.)  Indeed, the Wikpedia entry on Gellhorn plays up her ancestry as German, not partly Jewish. Gellhorn herself wrote these words after visiting Gaza in 1956: “These kibbutzim are the only places I know where a daily practical effort is made to follow the teachings of Christ.” (The View From The Ground, p. 136). So much for Gellhorn’s enthusiasm for Israel (or the “half-Jewish” identity ascribed to her by the HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn?).

It should be noted that Moorehead has had exclusive access to Martha Gellhorn’s papers at Boston University, and hence her lengthy biography had detail and heft that was presumably denied to competing biographers. It is also true that a wandering scholar cannot go into these papers and check Moorehead’s claims for accuracy.

Now that I have finished reading this supposed tell-all biography, I do have more ammunition to complain about the HBO rendition of the Gellhorn-Hemingway marriage (the notion that MG was having great sex with Hemingway is preposterous), but important questions are raised about authors who are not scholars, but biographers soi-disant, and who use archival materials to grind their own political axes. In Moorehead’s case, we learn about matters that are only of passing relevance to those interested in the achievements of the first major female war correspondent, whose colleagues, friends, and acquaintances were among the most significant social democrats, fascists, and/or communists of her time, H. G. Wells, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Robert Capa,  Joris Ivens, Lt. General James M. Gavin, Leonard Bernstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt for just a few examples. But CM’s details do appeal to our lower instincts, for instance the reader’s voyeuristic curiosity about bad sex, affairs with married men, abortions, a rape, naked sunbathing and swimming, facelifts, friendships with other celebrities, the absence of maternal instincts, and her final exit as a suicide.

I have no doubt that Moorehead thinks of herself as a feminist, yet she trots out as many as four abortions, perhaps to undermine her subject’s credibility as a humanitarian like herself. (Moorehead wrote other biographies, for instance of Freya Stark, an Arabist, or Bertrand Russell, whose anti-Zionist views are well known.) And I wonder if Moorehead is not a Third Worlder, for she slams MG for suppressing her initial negative reaction to Chiang-Kai Shek and Madame Chiang: i.e.,  Moorehead, unlike MG,  is truly devoted to The People. (For more on this point, see my review essay https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/links-to-review-essay-on-hemingway-spy-mission-to-china/.)

Now Moorehead could have, had she been any kind of serious intellectual, asked about the political significance of writing about the effects of 20th century wars upon civilians, using imagistic (pictorial) language, as Gellhorn was wont to do. Is there no problem with the aestheticizing of violence, as Walter Benjamin powerfully argued? Do we not end up by focusing upon the demise of Western civilization as an aesthetic experience, distanced from the horrors described, left in despair, overwhelmed by the magnitude of mass death, and launched upon a death trip?

No less than Hollywood pictures, Gellhorn was focused on violence, and put herself in harms way with such daredevil frequency, that one must ask if her restlessness and carelessness about her own safety did not have some neurotic component.  She read thrillers throughout life, CM tells us, but what was the emotional payoff for MG? Was she not striving to live up to her high-achieving parents’ expectations, and punishing them vicariously by risking her life, over and over?

After wading through 424 pages of text, I felt that I had just read a cleverly masked hatchet job. There is much of lasting significance to learn from the life of Martha Gellhorn, but this book has left a bad taste in my mouth.

June 15, 2010

The Classics as antidote to science education?

Max Beckmann, Odysseus and Calypso, 1943

   In the late 1930s, two books were published that traced the trajectory of European civilization, and found that The Greek Way (as classicist Edith Hamilton titled her book of 1930*) was clearly protofascist. One was by social psychologist Ellis Freeman: Conquering the Man in the Street: A psychological analysis of propaganda in war, fascism, and politics  (N.Y.:  Vanguard Press, 1940), the earlier by future Labour M.P. Richard Crossman:  Plato Today (N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1939). Both are available on Amazon.com and I highly recommend them, for social democratic journalists (Stanley Fish and J. M. Bernstein), blogging this week in the New York Times, are calling for renewed attention to a classical education as a remedy to a narrow science/technology education that is allegedly suppressing critical thought.  (In one case, the philosopher  J.M. Bernstein, compares the Tea Party to Jacobin terrorists, rage-driven and standing for a mythical autonomous individual.  But that critic of the organic society, Ellis Freeman,  would have been outraged by such a comparison, for the test of democracy was the structure of groups: would or would not the “leader” accept criticism from individuals in the group? If not, it was fascist or protofascist. Think now of the structure of classrooms in the humanities, dominated as they are now by left-liberals and hardcore Leninists. Or the fear that some Democratic congressmen have of Town Hall meetings.)

In other words, proto-Nazis (the Tea Party) would be cured with a dose of Hegel and other German Idealists who looked to measured, balanced, communitarian ancient Greeks for their models. Having just read the Robert Fitzgerald translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, I find the idea that Homer’s epics are useful to us today as any kind of social or political model quite terrifying, especially with respect to the critical practices that make a democracy viable. But as a source for comic books and blood and gore movies and television, the adventures of Odysseus are a treasure trove. Think of the good king, the paternalistic welfare state, the touching loyalty of its servants, fatalism, magic, the intervention of wise god figures in daily life (grey-eyed Athena or a wise Latina), superheroes, shape-changing creatures, gorgeous tall women and men, the glitter of gold and silver along with artisanal triumphs designed for the aristocracy, the increasing blending of gymnastics with dance, but most of all, the aestheticization of violence that Walter Benjamin described as the culture of fascism and Nazism in his famous defense of modern mass media “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Writing at the same time as Freeman and Crossman, Benjamin declared that such artists as Marinetti had glorified war to the point where humanity was contemplating its own destruction as an aesthetic experience. What would Benjamin have said about the humanizing beauty of Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors and the female slaves who had slept with them?– A slaughter that left the poet in awe of the “lion” figure of Odysseus, covered as he was with the blood and gore of his enemies.

As the late mathematician and author Norman J. Levitt understood very well, the scientific revolution created a rupture in the trajectory of the West that had the potential to change the course of Western civilization.**  It is through science-induced skepticism that we learn to stand alone, if necessary, in confrontation with the mind-management of the past, or with power-hungry and corrupt leaders of the present. It is through the ingenuity of individual, Promethean free-thinking humans that we will conquer hostile nature without destroying life on the planet. As for the Greek way (explicitly Keynesian in the view of Robert M. Hutchins), look to its legacy in the streets of Athens.

*I did not mean to imply that either Freeman or Crossman criticized Hamilton, nor do I forget that Plato banished poets from his Republic. I have now read her book, and it fits in with the ongoing portrait I have painted of the Progressives: their claim to balance the claims of individuality and community through their embrace of “the Third Way,” the aspiration to aristocracy, the glorification of heroes, their organicism. But she adds a grim touch in her adulation of tragic heroes, whose fates bring us intense pleasure, not pain. S-M anyone? (For a related blog, see https://clarespark.com/2015/05/30/constructing-the-moderate-men-with-the-classics/.)

**My friend Norman Levitt was a democratic socialist, and might have been transposing his desire for a rupture between capitalism and what he thought would be a better society back into the seventeenth century.

September 1, 2009

Blogging with a difference

Hayden White, 2005

Walter Benjamin once remarked that fascism allows the masses to express themselves (see his famous essay, The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction). This rings in my ears as I contemplate the new universe of blogging, for I see this revolution as both a great innovation and a dangerous outlet for irresponsible opinion. So a few words are in order to separate out YDS blogging from those of political partisans and other activists with designs upon the reader.

     1. On “activist” scholars. The late Budd Schulberg left the Communist Party because party functionaries were demanding that he change his writing, for instance, What Makes Sammy Run (1941), because he was not foregrounding “the progressive forces” in Hollywood. And when the second wave of feminism got started, there were women artists who, knowing the history of the authoritarian Left, worried that they would be expected to follow some party line. As for the postmodernists who ruled while I was in graduate school at UCLA, there was a widespread view that “the archive” itself was a social construct and inevitably biased toward the ruling class. The same cohort averred that “science was a swindle” and I, the defender of empiricism and archival research, was derided as “the last positivist.” And yet all these activists loved “the people” and believed themselves to be their emancipators.

     During the final stages of expanding my doctoral dissertation for publication, I discovered that the furious Tory response to the American and French Revolutions was directed at “autodidacts” who were now reading books for themselves and drawing conclusions about the social order not dependent upon the opinions of their  betters.  These same autodidacts were held to be assassins and demagogues, stealthy, bloody, tyrannical, and inept in the fine art of reading, so naturally, the mandarin class was poised to set them straight, that is, to be as deferential and docile as they supposedly had been before the seventeenth-century and the Scientific Revolution or the Radical Reformation (those precursors to the Enlightenment). 

    And during this same period of research, I learned that it was considered bad form to include long quotations from primary source materials. This struck me as very odd: can you imagine a scientific discovery being published without fully informing the reader as to all the materials and procedures that led to the experimenter’s conclusion, along with an accurate description of those prior conceptions that were now revised in the light of new knowledge? Yet the humanities frowned upon long quotations from the sources, and writers still apologize for them. Readers of the blogs on the YDS website will note that I do quote liberally from my sources, so that the reader can check upon the accuracy of what I draw from them, and then correct my readings if they distort the source or otherwise misinterpret them. (Postmodernists will find my practice hilariously retrograde, so I say to them, “you don’t think much of the rule of law, do you? And of course they don’t for the state is nothing more than the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. See my blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: rival visions of national unity” for the Charles Sumner understanding of liberal nationalism.) 

     Back to the activist bloggers or activist scholars. I once met an important art historian, who told me of a lecture he had given at Yale on British landscape painting of the eighteenth century. “I start,” he said, “with bourgeois society.” Huh? I thought. What about starting with the object and looking at it carefully, not missing any details, surrendering to its power, and then moving on to personal biography and all the institutions that might impinge on the making of a book or a painting or a musical composition or any other cultural artifact? After all that, going back to the painting, etc. and looking some more, perhaps seeing it even more deeply and understanding its appeal (or threat) to others. In other words, for my friend, “bourgeois society” was self-evidently evil, and anything that was made under its awful spell was bound to be tainted. It is true that patronage is important to artistic production, but if ever there was a comparative free-for-all in art-making it was a by-product of market economies and the marketplace of ideas. (Many readers will wince at this. Oh for the days of the Popular Front when–briefly– the bourgeoisie was viewed as a progressive class.)

   Now switch to how we encounter persons who may disagree with us on the heavy issues of the day. Too often my activist friends (and I have some) are too quick to dismiss anyone who does not share their judgments on this or that policy issue, let alone the larger questions that are currently roiling the world. Such impatient partisans may lack curiosity about the life experience and upbringing that might have led to the current polarization or “culture wars,” just as they may lack insight into their own preferences or need to belong to something big and heroic. One of the most damaging consequences of the fashionable existentialism after the second world war has been the notion that we cannot think ourselves into the heads of any other person, let alone understand our own motivation, or, get this: write history. Yet how can there be a civil discourse without some degree of mutual- and self-understanding, let alone a relatively accurate picture of the past and how we got here? In a “culture of despair” (to recall a title by Fritz Stern) desperation leads to catastrophe.

    To conclude this first point about YDS blogging, nearly all my posts strive toward objective scholarship, and invite the reader to test my work, by checking my readings of the sources, and then determining whether I have drawn reasonable conclusions from the evidence I provided. I understand that this stance is not fashionable, and I do not care. I am not working to please any establishment, and write for citizen-autodidacts and fellow-professional scholars.

   2. Language matters. Many postmodernists believed that I was doing work similar to theirs. This is true: language affects emotions and political will, and it is a constant struggle to resist the power of words and images that purport to represent “reality.” Therefore, I get very testy when persons I otherwise respect as sincere advocates for their policy du jour, refer to their opponents as loons, fanatics, crazies, wingnuts, moonbats, etc. Leaving aside the insensitivity to the suffering of real psychotics and their support systems when these epithets are tossed around, when I was at Pacifica radio and had the program director job, I tried to explain that the First Amendment was not intended to enable libel and slander (see the correspondence of Jefferson, John Adams, and Abigail Adams on this point), but to advance the search for truth so that citizens could make informed choices in their representatives and support policies that advanced the public interest (not that the public interest is easily determined). In other words, free speech was not an excuse for venting, but a rational means toward a rational end. And I never said that would be easy. Where I diverge from the postmodernists and other irrationalists is my view that we can get better as readers and to a degree, overcome our subjectivity* and get to closer and closer approximations of  reality. If we can’t do that, how can we save the planet?

*Hayden White describes himself and his postmodern colleagues as “radical subjectivists,” that all history writing conforms to literary genres, while he, with other postmodernists, believes that there is nothing “outside the text.” Cf. Immanuel Kant who insisted that we can never encounter “the thing in itself.” In my own work, I agree that particular historical narratives are deployed for purposes of persuasion, and of course believe that these must be identified as misleading and either deliberately twisted, or as simply ideological. [Added August 1, 2010: Benjamin Shepard disputes my reading of Kant and cites this passage from the Prologomena as evidence: ” The dictum of all genuine idealists from the Eleatic school to Bishop Berkeley, is contained in this formula: ‘All cognition through the senses and experience is nothing but sheer illusion, and only, in the ideas of the pure understanding and reason there is truth.’ The principle that throughout dominates and determines my Idealism, is on the contrary: ‘All cognition of things merely from pure understanding or pure reason is nothing but sheer illusion, and only in experience is there truth.’ ” More on this later as the question now arises: why has Kant been so frequently misdescribed by subsequent philosophers (at least the ones I have read)? And what does he mean by “experience.” The same as Locke?]

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