Thursday, September 26, 2013

T. S. Eliot, Prufrock and critics

I have recently read several critical essays that discuss Eliot. Edmund Wilson in his essay "The Historical Interpretation of Literature" for example; he begins by describing what he will not be discussing in his essay, and he uses T. S. Eliot as his example:

"To begin with, it will be worth while to say something about the kind of criticism which seems to be furthest removed from this. There is a kind of comparative criticism which tends to be non-historical. The essays of T. S. Eliot, which have had such an immense influence in our time, are, for example fundamentally non-historical. Eliot sees, or tries to see, the whole of literature, so far as he is acquainted with it, spread out before him under the aspect of eternity. He then compares the work of different periods and countries, and tries to draw from it general conclusions about what literature ought to be. He understands, of course, that our point of view in connection with literature changes, and he has what seems to me a very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past as something to which new works are continually being added, and which is not thereby merely increased in bulk but modified as a whole – so that Sophocles is no longer precisely what he was for Aristotle, or Shakespeare what he was for Ben Jonson or for Dryden or for Dr. Johnson, on account of all the later literature that has intervened between them and us. Yet at every point of this continual accretion, the whole field may be surveyed, as it were, spread out before the critic. The critic tries to see it as God might; he calls the books to a Day of Judgment. And, looking at things in this way, he may arrive at interesting and valuable conclusions which could hardly be reached by approaching them in any other way. Eliot was able to see, for example – what I believe had never been noticed before – that the French Symbolist poetry of the nineteenth century had certain fundamental resemblances to the English poetry of the age of Donne. Another kind of critic would draw certain historical conclusions from these purely esthetic findings, as the Russian D. S. Mirsky did; but Eliot does not draw them.”

These seem impressive achievements, to “have a very sound conception of the whole body of writing of the past” and to draw the connection esthetically between the French Symbolists and the metaphysical poetry of the nineteenth century. But perhaps at the same time, in the manner of our lowering our estimation of the skills of a magician once we learn how his trick was performed, is not our admiration of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock lessened by learning the “self-distrustful attitudes of Prufrock owe their definition largely to Laforgue, and there the technical debt shows itself; it shows itself in the ironical transitions, and also in the handling of the verse”?

The previous quote is from F. R. Leavis New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932. Leavis would disagree with my suggestion that Eliot’s having been influenced by Laforgue lessens the Prufrock achievement. He goes on to say that this Laforgue influence “has been made too much of by some critics: French moves so differently from English that to learn from French verse an English poet must be strongly original. And to learn as Mr. Eliot leant in general from Laforgue is to be original to the point of genius. Already in the collection of 1917 he is himself as only a major poet can be.”

Leavis seems more generous than Northrop Frye who in 1963 (T. S. Eliot) writes “Prufrock and Other Observations also appeared in 1917, showing the influence of Laforgue, most markedly in the lunar symbolism and the use of ironic dialogue.”

Which brings us to the “overwhelming question” why did Eliot who wrote this poem in 1915 present himself as an old man? He was only 37 or 38 at the time. The answer may be that the idea of an old man who had measured out his life with coffee spoons allowed him to present a dramatis persona as he thought Laforgue might, if Laforgue wrote in English.

Harold Bloom’s view, based on his A Map of Misreading might say that T. S. Eliot has nothing to be ashamed of and his readers ought not to think less of him for having been influenced by Laforgue. Every poet is influenced by some preceding poet – as far as we know – at least in modern times.   I think here of Edward Fitzgerald and his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, except in Fitzgerald’s case he never again did anything that measured up to his Rubaiyat whereas the critics I’ve read think despite its fame Prufrock doesn’t measure up to “The Wasteland” and “The Four Quartets.” 

Fitzgerald as well as Eliot might have balked at my comparison.  “Fitzgerald never claimed to be a poet.  ‘I have not,’ he confessed, ‘the strong inward call, nor cruel-sweet pangs of parturition, that prove the birth of anything bigger than a mouse.’”  But like Eliot he was also a critic: “. . . he thought himself a good judge of poetry and art.  As such, he did not ‘care for’ In Memoriam, classed The Ring and the Book ‘among the absurdist books ever written by a gifted Man’, and called it ‘a national Absurdity’ to devote a whole room in the National Gallery to pictures by Turner.  With such self-confidence in criticism, he became a bold improver of other people’s poetry.  He ‘distilled many pretty little poems out of long ones’ written by his friend Bernard Barton (1849), and having ‘sunk, reduced, altered, and replaced’ what he found unsatisfactory in Six Dramas of Calderon (1853), he applied similar treatment to the work of three Persian poets Jami, Attar, and Omar Khayyam (1856-9), and to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (1865).”

In the above (from page 101 of Victorian Poetry, Drama, and Miscellaneous Prose 1832-1890 by Paul Turner) Fitzgerald sounds as bold as Ezra Pound, another irascible improver of other people’s poetry, judge of what is good and bad in poetry but perhaps not as perceptive about his own poetry’s worth.  Pound did claim to be a poet, but there are not many today who would agree with him – although G. K. Chesterton called Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, “a great poem.” [page 134 of New Bearings]  Leavis seems to agree with him, but he would add that pound never wrote anything else as good.  He call’s “Mr Pound’s [Cantos his] Ring and the Book.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

William Blake, and lengthened Telomeres

Dean Ornish looked at Blackburn’s research showing that the shortening of telomeres, and therefore aging, is accelerated by emotional stress.  He decided to perform a test to see if the reduction of stress could lengthen ones telomeres.  Sure enough the test subject’s telomeres were lengthened.  Shortened telomeres reduces life span ergo lengthened telomeres is sure to increase life span. 

What must one do to get longer telomeres?  Exercise, eat mostly vegetables, and meditate.  There was a disclaimer at the end of the article to the effect that this test wasn’t performed to the highest scientific standards, but the results don’t really disagree with advice our doctors have been giving us for years: get plenty of exercise and don’t eat so much red meat.  The only new thing, at least to me, is the meditation. 

Years ago I was interested in Zen Buddhism and tried to meditate but never managed – it was way too boring.  However I’ve noticed that when I pick up a book and get caught up in the subject it is very relaxing  -- although I feel some stress, because of my Puritan ethic \ Superego which chides me for not doing things that have a practical and valuable objective..   Why don’t I do something useful before it is too late? 

Earlier I read an article by F. R Leavis on Blake, remembered I had Harold Bloom’s The Visionary Company which I set aside after page 35, reread his Preface, noticed he credits Northrup Frye for being his primary “source” or “influence” on the subject of Blake, and since I am very fond of Frye I ordered his Fearful Symmetry.  Normally I would expect loads of guilt for planning to read materials so patently un-useful.  But now, thanks to Ornish I need no longer feel guilty.  I can treat it all as meditation.

Friday, September 6, 2013

F. R. Leavis on Genius, etc

The above is a review by John Mullen of three books on F. R Leavis.  Leavis is not presented as addressing “genius” per se, but it is implicit and even mentioned once.  Leavis does not admire Dickens, but he does admire Hard Times:  “Dickens does not merit a chapter in The Great Tradition, but Hard Times, on its own, does. ‘If I am right,’ Leavis writes, ‘of all Dickens’s works it is the one that has all the strength of his genius, together with a strength no other of them can show – that of a completely serious work of art.’. . .”

One can therefore read this article, or the books it reviews, and take Leavis’ “great tradition” as an indication of who he believed were the geniuses of English literature – or moving to the idea (which Leavis would probably approve) that there are no geniuses only works that embody genius by talented writers. 

Leavis like Britain is considered by some to be irrelevant:  “Ellis begins his memoir by accepting that, for those now teaching English in schools or universities, ‘Leavis is an irrelevance.’ He certainly seemed an irrelevance to us as students in the late 1970s. We were about to be plunged into the giddy world of structuralism and deconstruction. If any of us had been recommended Leavis by an earnest English teacher, his authority would soon have been relinquished for Barthes and Derrida and Foucault. Some of the convictions that sustained him now seem odd relics. Hilliard details the mythologisation in Scrutiny of a lost world where labourers were creative artisans rather than alienated wage slaves. In particular Leavis recommended George Sturt’s 1923 study, The Wheelwright’s Shop, a paean to the fulfilment supposedly once found by the skilled worker in an organic community. Leavis mentions it again in ‘Luddites?’ as evidence of a relation between ‘cultural values’ and ‘economic fact’ that is ‘finally gone’.

“Yet that supposed ‘irrelevance’ is only apparent. All these books manage to suggest that Leavis reshaped ideas about the value of reading so completely that we do not notice it. He taught that every encounter with the greatest literature is completely fresh and demanding. In his early book How to Teach Reading he scorned ‘discussing literature in terms of Hamlet’s and Lamb’s personalities, Milton’s universe, Johnson’s conversation, Wordsworth’s philosophy, and Othello’s or Shelley’s private life’. We don’t have to reject all these topics to understand the value of clearing them away. Leavis bequeathed a confidence in the essential value of any intelligent reader’s intense engagement with the best literature. There is not exactly a Leavisite method to follow. As Collini rightly says, reading Leavis’s criticism one often gets the disconcerting sense that ‘the work of discrimination’ has already been done and that ‘the reader is merely being issued with a reminder of what was “plainly” the case.’ He is little interested in William Empson’s brand of close reading with its minute verbal explication. His critical writing often deploys extended quotation as if the best writing proves itself. But he had a virtue that would be rare among leading academic critics of a later generation: he found all that was valuable within the literary work rather than taking pride in his own critical ingenuity (in this respect at least, Byatt’s caricature seems wrong). Leavis taught his students that great literature is a test of the reader, endlessly renewable, and in this he seems both influential still and right.”

Thus, if we are sufficiently interested in the nature of genius as exemplified by British novelists and poets we would read Leavis to find out who he considers to be the great authors in the “Great Tradition.”  Leavis would say that if we read a great novel and don’t appreciate it then we are falling short of appreciating its genius probably because we ourselves fall far short of genius and are incapable of grasping what the author achieves.  That would be an intimidating conclusion if all those who developed lists of works in the Great Tradition agreed with each other.

Was Schumann a genius?

The above is a book review written by George Stauffer of Martin Geck’s biography of Schumann.  We learn that Schumann had every needed encouragement and benefit as a child:  “His father published and sold books, and Schumann demonstrated both literary and musical gifts at an early age. From adolescence onward, he consciously strove to become an “artist of genius,” writing his first curriculum vitae at age 14 and starting the lifelong habit of documenting the intimate details of his day-to-day activities through journals . . .”

Schumann’s symphonies fall short of Beethoven’s and his opera was no match for Wagner’s, but is that fair?  “His symphonies lacked the force and focus of Beethoven’s, and his chamber works seemed too formal. Impatient with Leipzig audiences and tired of the Neue Zeitschrift (he gave up the editorship in 1844), Schumann moved with his growing family to Dresden, where he fought escalating emotional problems by writing a series of contrapuntal piano works. In Dresden, Wagner held sway, however, and Schumann’s great effort at opera . . .  was no match for Lohengrin, which premiered in Dresden two months later. Must you beat out all the competition to be declared a genius? 

Also, Schumann guessed wrong about what the listening public wanted.  Must you guess right in order to be a genius? “The progressive composers—the “New German School”—advocated a more expressive, encompassing approach. Passions, moods, ethical attitudes, and even political stances were conveyed by extra-musical means (texts, programs, scenery, lighting) in amorphous structures shaped by the emotion of the moment. Brahms emerged as the standard-bearer of the conservatives; Liszt and Wagner led the New German School.

Ironically, both camps looked to Beethoven as their founder. His First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies, with their clear-cut formal plans, served as the model for conservatives. His Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth, with their programmatic slants (the life of Napoleon, fate knocking at the door, country scenes, universal brotherhood), set the precedent for the progressives. Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann sought a middle ground. Schubert pursued a lyrical solution to the symphony, filling his works with gorgeous melodies that kept the structures afloat. Mendelssohn relied on a more formal approach, even turning to Bach-inspired chorales to hold his symphonies together.

“Like Liszt and Wagner, Schumann believed in the tone poem. But whereas Liszt and Wagner anchored their works in Teutonic myth, using music as a means to an end, Schumann grounded his pieces in everyday life, using inspiration as a means to music. Whether or not the quotidian translates into a compelling listening experience remains unclear, as Geck admits.

And like so many geniuses, or near geniuses, Schumann was psychotic; which Geck describes as being probably genetic.  But I here recall Joseph Epstein’s definition of Genius from his article “I dream of Genius ( ):  “Be he a genius of thought, art, science, or politics, a genius changes the way the rest of us hear or see or think about the world.”    Who better to change the way we see the world than someone who is nuts?  Consider also Nietzsche in Philosophy and Blake in poetry?  They are both excellent examples of the way they look at the world, but they were also mad.  I suppose one can argue that Nietzsche did his major work before he was incapacitated by his madness.  One can’t make that same argument about Blake. 

Perhaps this means, I speculate, that the whole idea of “genius” is mistaken and that it is really madness – related to normality but different in the same way that less talented mad people are.  Except these folk are routinely incarcerated or drugged to keep them from interfering with the rest of us.  But if one is talented enough we listen to his music, read his or her poetry and marvel at his geniuses.  I recall the day I read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.  I read a review and rushed from work one noon hour to buy it from a local bookstore.  I read it in my car like an explosion.  But Sylvia wasn’t normal either.  So if we are perfectly sane – or nearly so – it may make no difference whether we are ever so smart, we can never be geniuses.



Did Russia mock Britain’s little Island?

Russian spokesmen deny that anyone said this, but the Telegraph suspects that someone did and in the enclosed video Cameron seems to think so as well.  Britain was called, if someone really did say it, “irrelevant.” 

I thought of Judy.  In the old days she would have popped up to correct my erroneous misperceptions and defend Britain.  In this case she doesn’t need to.  I support Cameron’s position.  Maybe Syria doesn’t really need to be bombed since they are only messing about within their own borders, but if one doesn’t bomb them and finds one will be considered irrelevant if one doesn’t, then a few bombs could clear that up nicely.  And, Cameron tells us in the video, he didn’t really say he wouldn’t bomb Syria, he just said he wanted a vote on a motion to vote on a proposal to vote on a motion, or something like that.  He is after all the Executive and can bomb Syria if he likes.

Which reminds me of Edmondson’s paraphrase from Civilization and its Discontents about our instinctual drive to mayhem and war:  “In general, to read a book or to write one is no substitute for burning down a library . . .” 

Judy or perhaps Mike might observe that I am sure to pop up when there is the prospect of a good war.  I thought about that.   A couple of years ago I accepted’s offer to check my DNA.  The results were that I am 40% British Isles, 40% Scandinavian, 11% Central European and 9% Southern European.  I can find plenty of evidence in the database of ancestors coming to the New World from the British Isles and further back of ancestors from Germany and Spain, but none whatsoever from any Scandinavian country.  That means, according to that my ancestors were Viking invaders who settled in the British Isles.  So while I am most recently 80% from the British Isles, 40% of that is from Viking settlers whom we all know to be extremely warlike, the other 40% is from non-Viking Brits who are merely “warlike.”  And then there are the warlike Germans, and ancestors sailing off from Spain to burn down Incan and Aztec libraries.

If I perk my ears at the sound of martial music, what of those who are still back in the British Isles being “suppressed” by leaders who tell them they can only read or write books and not burn down libraries?  Cameron must know that if he stresses how irrelevant Russia thinks they are and has another vote; Parliament will provide approval for bombing Syria.  No stinking Russian has the right to call us irrelevant. 

A few days ago I didn’t think bombing Syria was a good idea  We Brits and Americans are not at risk from anything they might do within Syria, despite the Chaney’s saying this will set a precedent for the use of WMDs and eventually result in their being used against us.  But if the Russians are going to call any of us irrelevant . . .

Thursday, September 5, 2013

On the Nature of Genius and Joseph Epstein

The above article by Joseph Epstein is an interesting description of things said, thought and written about “Genius” and intelligence.  We feel comfortable with the concept “intelligence,” having more or less ourselves and on occasions when we aren’t in competition with anyone probably know how much we have – unless we habitually lie to ourselves.  But if we do we can no longer turn to Sigmund Freud to find out why because, Epstein tells us, Freud is a failed genius – someone who was thought to be a genius for many years but now that his ideas have been discredited deemed a failure – along with Karl Marx.

Are the recipients of the Nobel Prize geniuses?  Epstein knew several of them and thought not.  He concludes that “it is always sensible to remember that in 1949 the Nobel Prize in medicine was given to Antonio Egas Moniz, a Portuguese surgeon, for developing the procedure known as the lobotomy.”

“Schopenhauer wrote: ‘A man of learning is a man who has learned a great deal; a man of genius, one from whom we learn something which the genius has learned from nobody.’”

“Who is and who is not an authentic genius is a question always up for dispute,” Epstein writes.  “Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy are on most lists. So, too, among the ancients, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are the indisputable musical geniuses. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and Raphael make the cut in the visual arts. So in science do Euclid, Galen, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Darwin. In politics, Pericles, Alexander the Great, Julius and Augustus Caesar, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi would seem to qualify, with Lenin and Hitler and Stalin and Mao Zedong falling into the category of evil geniuses.

I spent several months recently studying the American Civil War and tend to see things with its perspective.  By the end of this war several generals were considered geniuses, especially Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.  In terms of what they individually accomplished they deserve this classification more than any other generals, although nothing said about the Civil War nowadays goes unchallenged.  But if we look at these generals we see how large a role chance played in their being given the opportunity to displace their abilities.  Also, their abilities were not initially evident.  They needed to make a few mistakes before they were able to display “genius.”  And early in the war no general was permitted that latitude. 

At the beginning of the war George B. McClellan was called “the Young Napoleon.”  He was thought to be the most talented general in the Union Army, but he didn’t move his inexperienced army quickly enough or win spectacular enough battles, so Lincoln replaced him.  By the time Lincoln appointed Grant to lead the Union army he had learned that he needed to allow his general the chance to make a few mistakes.  Would McClellan have won the war a couple of years earlier if Lincoln had allowed him that same latitude he allowed Grant?   Ethan Rafuse, in McClellan’s War, published in 2005 and some others argue persuasively that McClellan is today underrated. 

The Generals in the Civil War were all under orders.  Lincoln for the Union and Davis for the Confederacy looked at his pool of officers and with a few advisors decided whom to promote or demote.  Lincoln we say in retrospect did well when he promoted Grant.  Davis in the same sense did well when he promoted Robert E. Lee.  Were these the only generals who could have done well at that level?  We don’t know because many generals were never given the chance.  At the end of the war, for example, it was thought by many that Nathan Bedford Forrest could have functioned at the very highest level.  Others dispute this with great vehemence I hasten to add, but the pool of talent was much larger than the numbers given the chance to perform at that level.

I would same the same thing about many of the geniuses on Epstein’s list. Most wouldn’t have had a chance to rise to the level called “genius” if they had been born to poorer parents.  Many wouldn’t have done well if they had not “sold themselves” to those who had the decision-making power to enhance their advancement. 

Also, the conception of who the geniuses are seems to change with every age.  In the Romantic age for example, “The Romantics preferred their geniuses daring like Lord Byron; mystical like William Blake; and tragic like poor John Keats. For them, geniuses, simultaneously heroes and martyrs, were blessed with gifts for revelation, and cursed by being at odds with the culture of their time. The ideal type of genius for the romantic was the poet. Percy Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; they were also prophets, who showed and revealed the sacred. Romantic critics—Henry Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson—made the genius out to be above the law, a law unto himself, and in his own way a god.”

I tend to think that in a healthy society there is a pool of people who with the right education and encouragement, and the right occasion or emergency can rise to a level subsequent generations may term genius.  This pool is made up of potentially highly intelligent and highly talented people. 

In this age many of the highly intelligent may look up from the pool at the odds, look at who “succeeds” and who doesn’t and decide striving after “success” or “genius” isn’t worth the candle.  Nevertheless they are still out there in each generation available to be called upon if needed, and if the calling is phrased properly.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Freud, Mortality and Suicide

Mark Edmundson entitled his book The Death of Sigmund Freud, and indeed his book does focus on death’s approach and Freud’s attitude toward and preparation for his death.  Freud never freed himself or sought to free himself from his: cigars.  He smoked an average of 20 a day and he firmly believe that they gave him the ability to think clearly.  At some point probably in his late 60s a cancer was discovered in his upper jaw on the right side.  He ultimately more than 15 surgeries and eventually had part of his jaw removed and prosthesis installed which was necessary for him to work and eat but was very painful.  Also it needed to be cleaned regularly – the removal and cleaning taking about an hour.  He couldn’t do it himself so his daughter Anna helped him.  How could he get her to do such a disgusting thing?  How could she do it?  They made a pact to treat it as an impersonal medical procedure and managed.

Freud died at age 83 and was in almost constant pain from the time his cancer was discovered until his death.  For him living involved working, thinking, writing and reading; so the only pain reliever he would use was aspirin.  Eventually his jaw could no longer be operated upon and began to rot.  A hole appeared in his face and the rotting odor drew flies.  This is quite a disgusting story and Edmundson tells it in some detail because at some point Freud is going to say “enough” and have his doctor, who is also one of his followers administer excessive doses of morphine.   He lost his ability to talk clearly and so could no longer see patients.  He finished his last writing and while he could think he needed to do something with his thoughts but there was no longer any thing he could do, and he probably couldn’t think clearly because of the pain.  Finally he could no longer read.  I don’t know what that entailed, but perhaps he lost the ability to concentrate upon books he thought worthy of reading.  So he called in his faithful retainer and said, “’My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk.  You promised me then not to forsake me when the time comes.   Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense anymore.’

“Schur let Freud know that he had not forgotten the promise he made ‘Ich danke Ihnen,’ Freud said.  ‘I thank you,’ He told Schur to ‘talk it over with Anna, and if she thinks it’s right, make an end of it.’  Schur spoke to Anna and Anna sorrowfully concurred with her father’s wish.”

“That same day, Schur gave Freud an injection of three centigrams of morphine, a dose much stronger than he would have used if the objective had only been to relieve pain. . .  He gave Freud another injection that day, then a third on September 22.  Freud lapsed into a coma, but he held on to life.  Midnight came and on Saturday, September 23, Sigmund Freud was still alive. . . At three in the morning on Saturday, September 23, 1939, Sigmund Freud died from cancer and from Schur’s morphine overdoses.”

As I read this, my dog Sage was in the process of dying.  She can no longer eat or walk.  She can no longer come up into my study.  I have in the past struggled over when to take a dog to the vet to have administered some drug like that administered to Freud, but Sage is clearly at that point now.  I would take her to the vet today, but the office is probably closed for the holiday.  From time to time she struggles to get up, probably to go outside and relieve herself, but the best she can do is change positions.  I’ve placed towels and blankets underneath her and take comfort from the fact that she doesn’t seem to be in physical pain.  There has been evidence of “confusion.”  The last few days whenever she has been outside she has looked about her as though trying to recognize where she is, or perhaps it is as though she is seeing these familiar sights for the first time.  Sage has had a number of ailments, severe allergies, thyroid problems, and lastly renal failure.  If any of these involved pain, I couldn’t tell.  Up until just a few days ago Sage wanted to go with us at least on walks if no longer to the river.  If she was experiencing “torture,” she was enduring it well. 

On page 229 Edmundson draws our attention to Freud’s “farewell utterance: ‘Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense anymore.’

“Consider, by contrast, some other parting words.  Oscar Wilde, mortally ill in a Paris flophouse, announced, ‘I am in a duel to death with this wallpaper.  One of us has to go.’  Goethe cried out, enigmatically, movingly, ‘More light!’  John Maynard Keynes, looking back on a life that was not without its pleasures, said, ‘I wish that I had drunk more champagne.’  Standing on the scaffold, about to die, Sir Walter Raleigh proclaimed, ‘This is a sharp medicine, but a sure remedy for all evils.’  Picasso petitioned all and sundry to drink to him.  P T. Barnum, American to the last, as Freud would see it, inquired into that day’s circus receipts from Madison Square Garden.  At his own end, Freud was sober and correct: ‘Now it is nothing but torture.’”

Edmundson doesn’t examine the idea that Freud should have endured his torture, and “modern medicine” doesn’t consider that possibility either.  Instead, drugs are administered to enable the dying to endure the pain.  Whether that is a more humane approach I don’t know.  We don’t want to be seen as a nation that kills its old people, but if at some point “it is nothing but torture,” are we not torturing them instead?  Is torture more humane than death?  If the torture is of limited duration then, yes.  But if it is to go on and on, then many would at some point prefer death.

I was never captured by the North Koreans but I did have to sit through classes on what I was to do if captured.  I was also exposed to the idea that I might be tortured and should at all cost resist giving up military secrets.  In more recent times it now seems to be common knowledge that no one can resist torture indefinitely.  Eventually it will reduce the tortured to crying, screaming, willingness to do whatever the torturer wants.  This is one of the reasons for the “Need to Know” policy.  If you don’t know the secret, you can’t divulge it to the enemy.  In Freud’s case perhaps he was concerned over something like this – not divulging secrets but “crying or begging for relief” from the torture.   He wanted to go out with dignity and he couldn’t do that if he was tortured for too long.  Neither could he do that if he was drugged to the point that he no longer had control of himself. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Edmondson on The Death of Sigmund Freud

Early last month I referred to an article by Mark Edmundson, “The Ideal English Major”   And a couple of days later decided I disagreed with a lot what he said and was puzzled by much of the rest.  I sent for two of his books. The first was The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll, a Memoir.  It was a “coming of age” sort of thing so I set it aside.  The second was The Death of Sigmund Freud, Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism. 

I have a few quibbles with Edmundson’s text but as a final assessment decided he wrote a very entertaining and provocative book.  His “parallel lives,” Freud and Hitler, approach is very clever and perceptive.  Not only was Freud confronted by Hitler, by way of the Nazis in Austria in a physical way, but Freud advanced Psychoanalytical theories about the nature of “the Patriarch” which Hitler exemplified perhaps better than anyone in modern times. 

Freud spent his last years in England; which he loved above other countries.  He had the fame that he had never received in Austria.  Despite that he continued working on his Moses and Monotheism, a book he knew would antagonize Jews and Christians alike.  And here it seems that Edmundson is indicating that he finds in this book something beyond what has been described -- an even more subtle Freud and a kind of Freudianism worthy of being embraced by future followers (including it seems Edmundson himself).  Moses monotheism wasn’t simply “one God,” it was “one invisible God.”  God in Judaism had to be internalized and since he was this made the Jew more capable of dealing in abstract ideas than the non-Jew.  Jews make up a proportionally higher number of mathematicians, physicists and scientists in general as well as anything else requiring the ability to work well with abstractions.

While Edmondson doesn’t mention Fukuyama what he ends up describing is very like Fukuyama’s ending in The End of History and the Last Man.  Perhaps Liberal Democracy seems to be defeating all its competitors, but there is the Superman who may start history up again because “the Last Man” that lumpenproletariat Nietzsche describes is boring and worthless and incapable of being joined by the Ubermensch.  Freud said he never read Nietzsche because he was afraid he would find all his ideas in his writings, and his “Patriarch” sounds very like Nietzsche’s Ubermensch.  And the common people, both Nietzsche and Freud say, love him.

[From Edmundson page 241]  “Freud also warns against thinking that the fascist and fundamentalist are radically other.  Book after book, essay after essay, has come into the world trying to show what set the German Nazis apart from everyone else.  It was their political past, their culture, their military tradition; it was the debased Treaty of Versailles; it was the Depression of 1929.  The same scholarly ritual is visited on Japan . . .  We seem desperate to know how different these peoples are from ourselves.  Freud indicates that such thinking is delusory; we are all fascists, we are all fundamentalists, at least potentially.  Through authoritarianism we attain assurance and happiness – though of a certain sort.  It is only constant critical labor that keeps the worst political and religious possibilities from becoming fact. 

“Freud also suggests that fascism and fundamentalism, because of their amazing powers of attraction, will always constitute an emergency.  When a powerful or rich nation turns to either, something must be done, and the more quickly, the better.  One of the reasons that France and England may have been slow to act prior to the Second World War was that their statesmen did not understand the joy – no less a word should attach to it – that fascism offers people.  Inner strife dissolves and the people become powerful and strong.  They have never felt so good before and they will not readily give that feeling up.  Others see their joy and are drawn to it.  Such people make determined and potent foes.”

Edmundson, invoking Freud, is implying it seems to me that Fukuyama’s “end of history” should not have been emphasized in his book.  The “Last Man” cannot possibly be the ultimate last man because the Superman, the Patriarch, will always arise and give the people the joy of war.   There will always be clashes of civilizations because the people love war.

In referring to Islamic and Christian “patriarchal religions” that love nothing so much as a good war, Edmondson doesn’t deviate from history, but when he writes “The most powerful and most technologically advanced nation in the twenty-first century has a sizable constituency who wish for little so much as religious rule by the state, theocracy” he is misinformed.   That was advanced as a slur against Christianity a few years back but there was never anything to it.  The “constituency” referred to is called “Theonomy” by most, but there are other names.  It comprises a theological position maintained by a few theologians and their followers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America and a few others, but it was never a predominate or even very influential view in those denominations.  Also, it has never grown.  If Theonomy is what Edmondson is referring to it does not in my opinion comprise a “sizable constituency.” 

If on the other hand Edmondson is referring to those Christians who call themselves “Fundamentalists” then he is wrong if believes they seek “religious rule by the state, theocracy.”  They believe in the near-term return of Christ and have no interest in religious rule by the state which would involve Christians remaining on earth longer than their near-term eschatology provides. 

Edmundson weakened his book by bringing in Fundamentalism in near the end.  He wants to have Fundamentalism stand for something all men are tempted by but he doesn’t make that case.  A much better case exists for the Superman, e.g. Hitler.   But if Hitler is the ideal modern Patriarch/Ubermensch, what does that make Hitler’s ideal followers?  Certainly not Fundamentalists.