Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 29, 2008

Burning the Future

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

Maria Gunnoe

While watching “Burning the Future“, the powerful new documentary on the environmental impact of strip mining (more accurately referred to as “mountaintop removal”), I could not help but think of rape. As you watch the profit-mad coal companies turn a prone and helpless West Virginia into a victim, your soul cries out for justice. Unfortunately, unlike sex crimes, turning coal into electricity–no matter the environmental and human costs–becomes justified as a civic duty during an era of growing energy insecurity. When Bill Raney, a sleazy coal industry spokesman with dyed hair and mustache, appears throughout the film to defend mountaintop removal, you cannot help but notice the little placard on his bookshelf that says: “Bush Loves Coal”.

I first became aware of the environmental impact of mountaintop removal in an April 2005 Harper’s Magazine article by Erik Reece titled “Death of a mountain: Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia”. Reece reports that:

There was a time in this region when union miners would have extracted the coal that lies beneath Lost Mountain with hand picks and shovels in deep underground shafts. But twenty-six years after Jimmy Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), the coal industry has developed much more expedient and much more destructive methods of mining. Instead of excavating the contour of a ridge side, as strip miners did throughout the 1960s and ’70s, now entire mountaintops are blasted off, and almost everything that isn’t coal is pushed down into the valleys below. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 700 miles of healthy streams have been buried by mountaintop removal-some say the number is twice that-and hundreds more have been damaged. Blasting on the mine sites has cracked the foundations of nearby homes and polluted hundreds of family wells. Creeks run orange with sulfuric acid and heavy metals. Wildlife populations have been summarily dispersed. An entire ecosystem has been dismantled.

Remarkable enough as a muckraking indictment of the coal industry, the movie is also a real breakthrough by showing the capacity of ordinary Americans, most of whom conform to the “Red State” stereotype of country music, NASCAR races, hunting and the Baptist church, to resist the onslaught that has turned their water wells into receptacles of filthy, toxic strip-mining run-off. The documentary, directed by David Novack, is a reminder that political activism is nearly never the result of preaching from above but the experience of daily life under a social, economic, or–in this instance–an environmental crisis. When your children suffer one health emergency after another, it is of no use to tell the parents that this is balanced by “economic progress” in their home state.

The wages of progress

Indeed, this kind of bottom line justification is hard to maintain in the face of job loss in the region. One of the main motivations for strip mining was to reduce the work force and increase profits. Armed with a stick of dynamite, one man might produce more coal in an hour than ten men can produce with pneumatic drills all day. With such happy economic facts staring the coal barons in the face, no wonder they decide to go with the dynamite.

Living beneath the mountaintops is another story altogether. Once you level the mountains of their natural foliage, including trees that it took a thousand years to produce, there is no natural resistance to flooding. Maria Gunnoe, a long-time West Virginia resident who comes from a coal-mining family, decided to become a full-time activist after seeing flood waters wash away most of her property. Seeing such destructive torrents, a kind of mountain-top tsunami in terms of its impact on peoples’ lives, convinced her to become part of a movement.

There is another form of flooding in the area that is also the product of mountaintop removal and even more deadly. When you are involved with strip mining, there is a need to dump the waste products in some nearby receptacle and what could be more convenient than West Virginia’s ample supply of streams and rivers. Of course, heavy metals might kill off all the fish living there, but that is a small price to pay for “progress”. Dams are formed as the natural result of such dumping as tons of rock and sand create artificial barriers to the swift-moving water. Unfortunately, such dams are susceptible to breakage–just like the New Orleans levees–and can result in catastrophe as was the case in 1967, when filthy water held back by a dam in Buffalo Creek poured into nearby villages after the dam burst. 132 million gallons of black waste water left 125 people dead and 1,121 injured, with over 4,000 left homeless. That is out of a population of 5,000!

Director David Novack allows the citizens of West Virginia to emerge as the stars of the movie, along with the scientists and public interest lawyers who have put themselves at their disposal. These are people who never expected to turn on their taps and see filthy muck fill their glasses. When a group comes up to New York City to press their case before the United Nations, they drop in at the Sherry-Netherland, a luxury hotel that is home to one of the coal industry’s top executives. One can imagine what this businessman would say if the same kind of filth came out his gold-plated faucets.

On the website Stop Mountaintop Removal, you can find out about what makes such folks tick. Maria Gunnoe’s story is worth quoting in some detail:

I’m settin’ there on my porch, which is my favorite place in the whole world, by the way – I’d rather be on my front porch than any other place in the world and I’ve been to a lot of places. As it stands right now, with the new permits I saw last week, they’re gonna blast off the mountain I look at when I look off my front porch. And I get to set and watch that happen, and I’m not supposed to react. Don’t react, just set there and take it. They’re gonna blast away my horizon, and I’m expected to say, “It’s OK. It’s for the good of all.”

Am I willing to sacrifice myself and my kids, and my family and my health and my home for everybody else? No – I don’t owe nobody nothin’. It’s all I can do to take care of my family and my place. It was all I could do before I started fightin’ mountain top removal. Now that I’m fightin’ mountaintop removal, it makes it nearly impossible. But at the same time, my life is on the line. My kids’ lives are on the line. You don’t give up on that and walk away. You don’t throw up your hands and say, “Oh, it’s OK, you feed me three million tons of blasting material a day. That’s fine, I don’t mind. It’s for the betterment of all.”

I can’t say that there’s anything out there that I’m willin’ to risk myself and my kids for. Nothin’. No amount of money, no amount of energy, no amount of anything. If it come down to it, we could live up under a rock cliff with what the good Lord above give us. And we could live like that, as long as we got clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment. We can take care of ourselves from there. But when they contaminate our water, our air, and our environment we’re gonna die no matter what we do. That’s it.

Kudos to David Novack for producing and directing a movie like “Burning the Future” that introduces us to a real hero like Maria Gunnoe. “Burning the Future” will open today at the Landmark Cinema Theater in New York and in Los Angeles a week later. It will also show on the Sundance Channel on May 13th this year. I give this film my highest recommendation.

February 27, 2008

Beyond Belief

Filed under: Film,war — louisproyect @ 8:07 pm

Susan Retik and Patti Quigley

One of the most underreported stories about the aftermath of 9/11 has been the refusal of some victims to conform to the xenophobic model created in the name of American patriotism by George W. Bush and company.

“Beyond Belief”, a documentary directed by Beth Murphy opening at the Cinema Village in N.Y. on Friday and nationwide thereafter, tells the story of two women who lost their husbands on 9/11 when the airplanes they boarded that day crashed into the World Trade Center. Susan Retik and Patti Quigley were both pregnant on September 11 and complete strangers to each other, living comfortable lives as “soccer moms” in the suburbs of Boston.

After their devastating loss, they looked each other up and decided before long to launch a charity on behalf of their counterparts in Afghanistan, women who lost their husbands in war. The film shows them raising money for their foundation by riding bicycles from N.Y. to Boston, doing interviews and reminiscing about their husbands.

Eventually they decide to visit Afghanistan to check up on the results of their contributions, which were mostly dedicated to making widows self-sufficient through small businesses, including raising poultry. This is deadly serious business considering the unraveling of the “war on terror” over the past few years. Suicide bombs and kidnappings have grown more frequent, including one that nearly cost the life of their chief liaison in Afghanistan, a CARE worker named Clementina Cantoni.

The final section of the movie shows the women meeting with Afghan women and talking about their respective losses and their hopes for the future. While the politics of their project is obviously different from the one that I was involved with in 1980s Nicaragua, there is something of the same feeling of shared humanity. While the film is fairly conventional in its treatment of the subject matter, the final moments of the film will bring tears to the eyes of just about everybody who watches it. There was far more genuine emotion on display than just about anything I have seen in a big budget Hollywood production for some time.

I could not help but think of Barack Obama’s campaign as I watched this movie. Although I am a long-time critic of the Democratic Party and have written an article exposing the rightwing tendencies of his economic advisers, I find the support consolidating around his campaign to be most encouraging. After 8 years of war, racism and greed, the American people seem to be doing everything they can to repudiate the status quo. By ignoring all the attempts to brand Barack Hussein Obama as some kind of secret jihadist, they are making a statement that they are sick of business as usual.

For more information on the work of Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, go here.


February 25, 2008

Used book sale is OVER

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

Sorry, I already sold the entire collection earlier in the day. I am leaving the link to my books up so people can get an idea of how much of a book junkie I was. 

Because I have begun to run out of space in my apartment and because I lack the time to read them even if I live to 120, I am selling a bunch of books listed in the spreadsheet linked to below:


The price in column 3 generally comes from the cover of the book and is included for reference more than anything else. As a rule of thumb, my price is half of the selling price for a used version of the book on Amazon.com. So, for example, I am selling Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” (a biography of the weasel Robert Moses) for $4.25, while the Amazon.com used price for the same book is $8.50. All books are paperback, unless marked with an * in column 4.

Finally, I am more interested in making space in my apartment than making money. I am anxious to move the books and will be open to any reasonable offer. However, I am not interested in selling small quantities of books since I don’t have time to wrap packages up and run to the post office for 2 or 3 books. Ideally, I am looking for purchases $100 and up. Although I doubt anybody would want to take the entire inventory off my hands, I would be asking $1000 for all of them. Considering that the list price for that would be over $13,000, I think that is fairly reasonable.

There are no handling charges, just the postage it costs to mail the books.

Contact me at lnp3@panix.com with your bids and your questions.

February 23, 2008

A layperson’s guide to crisis theory

Filed under: economics,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Anwar Shaikh

The next topic in our introduction to Marxism online class is something of a calculated risk since it involves readings and discussions of some fairly difficult questions around what has been described as “crisis theory”. Not only is some of the material pretty challenging, I have to confess that it is an area that I don’t consider myself an expert in (as opposed to ecology–the next topic after this one.)

I think it is worth going into since it is a hot topic on the Marxist left, especially in the academy. It is also being referred to every time there is a major convulsion in the international economy, such as the one we are in now. Basically, you find an attempt to explain something like the dot-com bust or the subprime mortgage fiasco of today as a function of the capitalist system itself and specifically its inherent tendencies to implode.

As I pointed out in my reference to Ernest Mandel’s chapter on crisis from his 1990 book on Karl Marx earlier in the week, you cannot find much support for inherent tendencies toward crisis in the 3 volumes of Capital itself. Marx was content to analyze the functioning of capitalism in normal conditions, which was sufficient to condemn the system when you keep in mind that child labor, 12 hour working days and miserable wages characterized the system in its initial stages. You didn’t need an economic collapse to persuade workers to become socialists. Factory work was radicalizing enough.

Over the next week or so, I intend to serve as a kind of guide to some of the more important literature in this vein which I hope does not end up as the blind leading the blind. As someone who has been mystified in the past by the furious debates among people I all regard as friends and comrades over these questions (Patrick Bond, Leo Panitch, Doug Henwood to name a few), I figured that it was high time for me to come up to speed and bring the rest of you along with me.

As has been the case up to now, all of the readings will be on the Internet. Some of the Marxists I have identified as being prime examples of this sub-discipline are Rosa Luxemburg, Henryk Grossman, Paul Mattick, David Harvey and Paul Sweezy. But before we begin reading and discussing their articles, it might make sense to begin with an excellent introduction to the literature by Anwar Shaikh, a New School professor who is an acknowledged expert in the field. His web page consists of many articles and books that can be downloaded for free: http://homepage.newschool.edu/~AShaikh/, including the one that I will be reviewing here. Also included are a number co-written by Ahmet Tonak, an old friend who was on Marxmail and PEN-L for a long time until he relocated to Istanbul. If you visit Shaikh’s website, it will be obvious that he is a proponent of the “falling rate of profit” thesis, one of the key components of crisis theory.

It should be noted, however, that the falling rate of profit was noted by Marx himself in part III of V. 3 of Capital as the title would clearly indicate: “The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall”. Notwithstanding Marx’s assertion that such a tendency leads to crisis, it does not automatically follow that it is an absolute tendency. Profits do not only tend to rise and fall, it is also difficult for Marxist economists to come to an agreement about whether they are rising or falling at a given moment in time, as furious debates between Robert Brenner and Sam Gindin forwarded to Marxmail would indicate.

Shaikh begins by making a useful point, namely that “the truly difficult question about such a society [capitalist] is not why it ever breaks down, but why it continues to function.” In other words, the analysis of “reproduction” (the normal functioning of capitalist society) and the analysis of crisis are inseparable.

Shaikh next identifies 3 basic lines on whether the capitalist system is “self-equilibrating”, a technical term that refers to the system’s ability to resolve momentary upsets, either as large as the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the dot-com bust of 2000, which seemingly had no impact on the underlying economy at all.

1. There are no necessary limits on the capitalist system. When left to its own devices (Milton Friedman) or properly managed (Keynes), it can go on forever.

2. The capitalist system is incapable of self-expansion. It can grow, but only at the expense of the non-capitalist world. Shaikh writes that the “different schools of underconsumption, including Marxist ones, have their origin in this line of thought.”

3. Capitalism is capable of self-expansion, but the accumulation process only deepens the internal contradictions on which it is based, until a crisis is provoked. This is a strictly Marxist approach which can include both a “falling rate of profit” and a “profit squeeze” explanation of crisis.

Since there are (hopefully!) none of us who are committed to #1, I am going to move ahead and recapitulate Shaikh’s discussion of #2.

Underconsumption theory rests on the notion that there are two “departments” involved with capitalist production. Department 1 produces capital goods, such as raw materials, fuel, buildings and machinery. Department 2 consists of consumer goods and services. Demand in Department 2 drives production in Department 1. In other words, if workers begin to buy Ipods, there will be a need for stepped up production of microchips, etc. in Department 1.

Once the capitalist pays for the costs of production in Department 1 type commodities, he is left with “net operating income”, which is divided into wages and profits and available for future demand. Since workers’ wages constitutes only a portion of net income, they can only purchase a portion of the net product of goods and services. The bosses still have cash available in the form of their profits, thus it is incumbent upon them to purchase the backlog of consumer goods. However, if they spend their money in this fashion, there will be no money available for new investment or growth.

Underconsumptionist theory can be found in non-Marxist economics, including in Malthus. When adopted by Marxists, it is typically the result of not understanding Marxist economics sufficiently. For example, Marx’s writings were embraced by Russian populists in the 1870s but they gave them an underconsumptionist twist. They reasoned that since workers produced more than they consumed (a crude understanding of the production of surplus value), the home market in Russia would be inadequate for growth and hence impossible for future capitalist development. In their eyes, the only possibility for social revolution rested in the peasant communes, which did not operate on the basis of capitalist profit and hence avoided the underconsumptionist conundrum.

Against the populist interpretation of Marx’s labor theory of value, Lenin and Tugan-Baranowsky observed the growth of capitalism in the Russian countryside despite the populists’ failure to notice it, and went on to explain it in terms of a more correct understanding of Marxist economics.

Unlike the Russian populists, Rosa Luxemburg had a much better grasp of Marxist economics. But that did not prevent her from adapting some of their arguments. Shaikh presents her argument as follows:

Imagine that at the end of a production cycle the whole social product is deposited in a warehouse. At this point capitalists come forward and withdraw a portion of the total product to replace their producer goods used up in the last cycle, and workers come and withdraw their means of consumption. This leaves the surplus product, from which capitalists withdraw a portion for their personal consumption. Now Luxemburg asks, where do the buyers for’the rest of the product come from? (This is of course the traditional underconsumption problem of filling the “demand gap”). If Marx is right, she says, then it is the capitalist class which buys back the rest of the product in order to invest it and thus expand productive capacity. But that makes no sense at all, for “who are the new consumers for whose sake production is ever more to be enlarged?” Even if capitalists did what Marx says they will, in the next period productive capacity will be even greater, the gap to be filled even larger, and the problem even more intractable. Marx’s “diagram of accumulation does not solve the question of who is to benefit in the end by enlarged reproduction. . .” Expanded reproduction is algebraically possible but socially impossible.

If Rosa Luxemburg’s underconsumptionist analysis is faulty, it at least has the merit of allowing her to see the expansionist character of the capitalist system, which at least on an empirical basis does seek to resolve crisis at home by attacking non-capitalist spheres abroad and integrating them into the capital accumulation process. David Harvey, one of the more respected Marxist economists on the scene today, has adapted Luxemburg’s theory for his own notion of “accumulation by dispossession”. Clearly, this analysis overlaps with his own and other economists’ views on the nature of imperialism today, which will be our next topic for discussion.

After Rosa Luxemburg, the next attempt by a Marxist to adapt underconsumptionism was Paul Sweezy’s “The Theory of Capitalist Development”, written in 1942 at a time when capitalist crisis was obviously very much on the minds of Marxists everywhere. Although Sweezy’s book is not online, it is worth quoting a salient passage to give you a sense of how he saw the problem:

The real task of an underconsumption theory is to demonstrate that capitalism has an inherent tendency to expand the capacity to produce consumption goods more rapidly than the demand for consumption goods. To put the point in another way, it must be shown that there is a tendency to utilize resources in such a way as to distort the relation between potential supply of and potential demand for consumption goods. This tendency may manifest itself in one of two ways. Either (1) capacity is actually expanded and the difficulty becomes apparent only when an increasing volume of consumption goods begins to come on the market. There will then be a point beyond which supply exceeds demand at normally profitable prices, and as this point is passed production of consumption goods, or production of additional capacity, or more likely both, will be curtailed. In this case, then, the tendency in question manifests itself in a crisis. Or (2) there are idle productive resources which are not utilized to produce additional capacity, because it is realized that the additional capacity would be redundant relative to the demand for the commodities it could produce. In this case, the tendency does not manifest itself in a crisis, but rather in stagnation of production. It follows that if the tendency to underconsumption can be established, it can serve to explain both crises and periods of stagnation. At the same time, however, it must be expected that there are many forces which counteract the tendency to underconsumption, so that for long periods the latter may remain latent and inoperative. For the present we shall attempt only to establish the tendency to underconsumption, leaving the counteracting forces and their mutual interaction for consideration in Chapter xii.

It should be mentioned at this point that Paul Sweezy’s tended to see underconsumptionism as having more of a tendency to result in “stagnation of production” than in crisis, especially as the U.S. moved away from the awful economic impasse of the Great Depression and into postwar prosperity. From the 1950s onward, Sweezy, Paul Baran and the other intellectuals associated with Monthly Review could hardly be regarded as “doom and gloom” prophets. Mostly, they saw the evils of capitalism in some ways as consistent with the point of view embodied in Capital, Volume One. Capitalism sucked because of the way that labor was exploited on a “normal” basis. While Marx identified this process with the cruelties of the factory system, Sweezy and Baran approached more in terms of the failure of the capitalist system to produce a decent society. Whether it is a 12-hour working day or being bombarded by laxative ads on television, the capitalist system left a lot to be desired.

That view was put forward in “Monopoly Capital”, co-written by Sweezy and Baran. In it you no longer find the same underconsumptionist arguments of the 1942 book, but more of an analysis that posits capitalism as system that has an intrinsic tendency to expand the production capacity of Department II faster than consumer demand. This amounts to more of an overproductionist emphasis but the net result is the same.

Moving on to #3, or capitalism as a system of self-expansion but only through the deepening of internal contradictions, you get into a group of thinkers, who while sharing that framework, have all sorts of hot debates about how that framework relates to economic realities.

This is how Shaikh formulates the basic approach:

Radical and Marxian underconsumption theories tend to focus on effective demand as the limiting factor in capitalist accumulation. In Marx’s own analysis, however, effective demand is not an intrinsic problem. On the contrary, in his view capitalists are driven to accumulate as rapidly as possible, so that self-expanding reproduction, not stagnation, is the normal tendency of the system. This does not imply that the accumulation process is smooth, or that partial crises may not occur along the way due to crop failures, etc. But it definitely does imply that the limits to the accumulation process do not arise from an insufficiency of demand.

Does this mean, as Rosa Luxemburg so eloquently argues, that once one rejects underconsumption theory one is forced to accept the view that accumulation (and hence capitalism itself) is capable of indefinite extension? Not at all. According to Marx, the limits to accumulation are entirely internal to the process. “The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.”

Capitalist accumulation is motivated by profitability. But, according to Marx, accumulation progressively lessens profitability, so that it tends to undermine itself. This is the famous law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which we shall turn to shortly. At the same time, accumulation implies extension of capitalist relations, increase of the proletariat and of its strength.

Declining profitability means declining rates of accumulation and increasingly fierce competition among (national and international) capitalists for markets, materials and cheap labor-power. As weaker capitals are eliminated, economic concentration and centralization (i.e., “monopoly”) increases. Moreover, it becomes increasingly necessary for capitalists to attack wages either directly, through mechanization, or through import of cheap labor-power and/or export of capital to poorer countries.

At the same time, the size of the working class and the extent of its collective experience in struggling against capital is continually on the rise. Thus capital’s increasing attack on labor is met with an increasing resistance and counter-attack (over the long-run). The class struggle intensifies.

The remainder of Shaikh’s article is a presentation of his own take on the falling rate of profit, followed by a history of the theory with a focus on Henryk Grossman, Paul Mattick and David Yaffe. Rather than spending any time to recapitulate this section of his article, it would probably make more sense to go directly to their articles, which will happen over the course of the next week or two.

In the meantime, I invite you to read Shaikh’s article at: http://homepage.newschool.edu/~AShaikh/crisis_theories.pdf



February 22, 2008

Harold Bloom: musings of a reactionary critic

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

On multiculturalism… “You know, there are certain inescapable books that I really do feel all of us should read as early as possible. What does education mean if it does not expose children and young people to Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dante?…But unfortunately what is called ‘multiculturalism’ in the United States never means Cervantes. It doesn’t mean replacing a writer in English by Cervantes…It means fifth-rate work by people full of resentment, who happen to be women, or who happen to be Chicano or Puerto-Rican, or who happen to be African-American, and they are by no means the best writers who are African-American, or women, or so on. They are simply the most resentful and the most ideological. The function of an education is not to make people feel good about themselves, or to confirm their sense of division, of being in one group rather than another.”

Excerpted from “Harold Bloom Interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel” Queen’s Quarterly v102, #3 (Fall 1995) PAGES 609-19.

On victimization… “We have lost all our standards. We’re afraid to be called racist and sexist. I am not racist or a sexist…This myth of victimization produces African-American students who are under pressure to segregate themselves, peer pressures not to study, peer pressures not to read. I think the myth of victimization is more of a danger now to black and Hispanic students in the U.S., but of course I will be called racist for saying that. Surely it is a social tragedy that there is enormous pressure on the African-American not to mix and mingle with other groups. This is peer pressure not placed on Asian Americans. My best students are Asian Americans. These students will work and will brood about literature and will think about it at night and will take care to write very well. This (debate on the canon) is an intellectual and perhaps a spiritual matter. Authentic literature doesn’t divide us. It addresses itself to the solitary individual or consciousness.”

Excerpted from “Choice interviews: Harold Bloom interviewed by Terry Farish” Choice v32, #6 (Feb, 1995): PAGES 899 – 901.

On teaching “Blood Meridian“… I will probably teach Blood Meridian another half dozen times or so. In the rest of my career I don’t think I will come to the end of it. I would like one conversation with McCarthy, though I am sure he will always keep a good distance away from me. One would want something to help solve the mystery of why this astonishment was possible for him only that once. He is a great puzzle, I think, aesthetically, because Suttree was a marvelous book, though so close, at times, to Absalom, Absalom as to be almost embarrassing. It is true that there is a whole series of major American novelists who have only the one great book. There are very few who have more, like Henry James, or Faulkner, who had one great phase which lasted ten years, during which the five really top books were written. James is able to go on for thirty-five years and there are masterpieces at every point.

Excerpted from “Tragic Ecstasy: A Conversation with Harold Bloom about Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ by Peter Josyph in Southwestern American Literature Vol. 26 No. 1 Fall 2000

No Country for Old Men Award Nominations

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:16 am

Can be seen here.

February 21, 2008

Art as commodity

Filed under: art,literature — louisproyect @ 1:17 am

My review of “No Country for Old Men” has generated a more general discussion about art and politics on my blog and on Stan Goff’s Feral Scholar. Although the debate has been pretty polarized over the role of Cormac McCarthy in realizing some ideal about Great Literature, just about every participant lays claim to radicalism or Marxism.

One of the more ubiquitous posters is one John Steppling, who seeks to rescue art from commissars like myself who are represented as latter day partisans of the proletarian novel and socialist realism:

You cannot attack Mccarthy for not writing a book making the didatic points you want him to make. Thats not what literature does at any time. I find a lot of people on all political sides become a bit frightened by characters when they are constructed as McCarthy constructs them…by which I mean without conventional sentimentality and motivation.

I should add that Steppling’s comments are almost always marked by such spelling and grammatical errors which led blogger Martin Wisse to observe: “How can anyone take a John Steppling seriously on literature when the fellow doesn’t even have a basic command of English?”

One of the benefits of the debate for me has been its triggering in my mind of some deeper considerations of the social role of art (I use the word art in reference to painting, music, theater, poetry, novels and all the rest), especially in light of a re-reading of the early chapters of volume one of Karl Marx’s “Capital”. When you think of the creation of art in the context of the commodity, use value and exchange value, certain thoughts come to mind that might help put the debate on a more “materialist” foundation.

Keep in mind that art only began to become a commodity in the mid-19th century as the artist was freed from feudal ties. For the musician and painter, the need for support from the prince or the church was obvious. A piano was expensive, not to speak of the orchestra needed to perform a composition. For the painter, fixed capital was fairly minimal: a canvas and some paint. But since each work was non-reproducible, there had to be a wealthy backer to support his efforts. This meant that the typical painting was a laughing cavalier or a crucifixion. The artist only became to be emancipated from feudal dependence when a new bourgeoisie began to emerge. For the musician the struggle was longer and harder as Mozart’s life story demonstrates.

In distinction to the painter or composer, the novelist benefited from the mechanical printing press and could get into commodity production simply by securing a pen, some paper and a good idea. It is no accident that the first modern novel–Don Quixote–takes as its theme the emergence of bourgeois society in Spain.

In the renaissance, paintings and musical compositions were not commodities. They only had use value. The Church or a monarch would commission a work that was used for the spiritual edification of the flock or for flattering the court. There was only a difference in degree between such works and the fine meals and fancy clothing that were also put together by the rest of the household staff.

By the mid-19th century, novels became the quintessential commodity with Charles Dickens’s novels being serialized in the newspapers. It took much longer for music to catch up, but with the introduction of the phonograph, the composer found a way to tap into the mass market as well. Painters are much more of a throwback to the age of feudalism as they have had to rely on the ruling class for patronage. But even in the case of one-of-a-kind works of art, you are dealing with the exigencies of the marketplace and the fetishism of commodities.

As the nation-state consolidated around the class rule of the bourgeoisie and replaced the latticework of feudal principalities that served as a platform for the arts, new use values began to emerge. The composer and the artist articulated the ruling class’s political and ideological ambitions even if in an indirect fashion. The use value of a Wagner opera was to articulate the yearnings for German national unity, just as Klimt’s paintings were seen by his Austrian governmental benefactors in the same fashion. Klimt’s modernism was meant to counter folkloric works of “lesser nationalities” resisting assimilation by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In Great Britain, the prototypical capitalist nation-state, “Great Literature” was drafted to serve the same purpose. As religion and belief in the monarchy began to subside among the working class in the Victorian era, astute servants of the ruling class came to the conclusion that Shakespeare, Jane Austin, et al could help bind the nation together in pursuit of the ruling class’s ambitions. Before literature became elevated to this lofty status, it was simply seen as entertainment–something that ladies and gentlemen enjoyed in their leisure.

All this is discussed in some detail in “The Rise of English”, an article in Terry Eagleton’s “Literary Theory, An Introduction”. Eagleton states:

If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’. By the mid- Victorian period, this traditionally reliable, immensely powerful ideological form was in deep trouble. It was no longer winning the hearts and minds of the masses, and under the twin impacts of scientific discovery and social change its previous unquestioned dominance was in danger of evaporating. This was particularly worrying for the Victorian ruling class, because religion is for all kinds of reasons an extremely effective form of ideological control…

Fortunately, however, another, remarkably similar discourse lay to hand: English literature. George Gordon, early Professor of English Literature at Oxford, commented in his inaugural lecture that ‘England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.’ Gordon’s words were spoken in our own century, but they find a resonance everywhere in Victorian England. It is a striking thought that had it not been for this dramatic crisis in mid-nineteenth- century ideology, we might not today have such a plentiful supply of Jane Austen casebooks and bluffer’s guides to Pound.

I would argue that the elevation of reading novels and poetry into a kind of transcendental sacrament roughly equivalent to eating communion wafers in the 20th and 21st century is a direct result of the British transformation of what was basically entertainment into the “Classics”. When you think of all the papers delivered on Austen and Pound to Modern Language Association conferences over the years, it is helpful to understand their real purpose, which is as Eagleton points out, a mechanism to “save our souls and heal the state”.

This might not be so obvious with the MLA Conferences, stocked to overflowing by one type of Marxist professor or another, but it becomes more obvious when you consider the high priests of modernism such as Harold Bloom and Saul Bellow. They were quite conscious of why Great Literature serves as totems for the Great Civilization they beat the drums for. Obsessions with “Canon” at places like Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago unwittingly betray religious antecedents when you consider that the term referred originally to the books considered authoritative by religious sects, either Judeo-Christian or Moslem. Controversies have broken out at prestigious universities over whether non-Western literature should be added to the Canon. My tendency would be to get rid of the idea of a Canon altogether.

If saving our souls and healing the State serves as the ultimate use value of “Great Literature”, there is also exchange value to be considered. A book is the ultimate commodity as the proliferation of Barnes and Nobles in every major city would demonstrate, not to speak of amazon.com. Authors are under enormous pressure to differentiate their commodity from the competition, just as laxative manufacturers must.

The marketplace demands novelty. When a young novelist is considered by the NY Times Book Review section, saying something “fresh” and “new” is about as important as it is in the clothing business. Nothing could be more superfluous than last year’s designer jeans or novels.

One should never underestimate the power of the capitalist system to absorb, assimilate and co-opt even the most “daring” forms of art, including surrealism which emerged in the 1920s as a revolutionary cultural movement led by a Trotskyist André Breton.

On October 2, 1998, the Times reported on “A new spot for Chanel No. 5 dabs on some sex and surrealism.” Chanel ads always featured the work of leading-edge photographers. From 1979 to the 1990’s, their products were peddled in highly sophisticated, sex-suffused images reminiscent of Salvador Dali paintings. They were the work of Ridley Scott, who went on to become a movie director with mixed results. Here’s one of his best-known ads.

And here’s word on Ridley Scott’s possible new project:

According to The Hollywood Reporter, William Monahan is in negotiations to adapt Scott Rudin’s long-gestating feature film of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel “Blood Meridian,” which is now set up at Paramount Pictures.

Although no offer has been made, Ridley Scott has been approached to direct. Scott and Monahan are currently writing and directing two projects together — “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Tripoli,” which are both set up at 20th Century Fox. In the last incarnation of “Blood Meridian” in the late 1990s, Tommy Lee Jones was set to direct and rewrite Steve Tesich’s adaptation and take a small role in McCarthy’s dark Western.

February 16, 2008

Herman Melville and indigenous peoples

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm
Melville painted a picture of the society of his day, not merely the society of America, but all of society. He indicated very clearly where he thought it was heading–at the end of the book the last sight of the ship shows an eagle, symbol of America, caught in an American flag and being nailed down without possibility of escape, to the mast by the blows of an American Indian. It is impossible to speak more clearly. The social perspectives, however, are not completely hopeless. The survivor is not saved merely for the purpose of relating the story. He is saved by a coffin, prepared by the request of another savage, and fitted for its ultimate purpose so deliberately by the author as to exclude any idea that this is accidental. Who the survivor is, who rescues him, etc., its symbolical significance will appear later. It is enough that while Melville sees no solution to the problem of society, he does not say that there is none. He can see none.

(From chapter 2 of “American Civilization” by CLR James, titled “American Writers of the Nineteenth Century)

Chapter three of Moby Dick, titled “The Spouter Inn”, contains one of the most famous scenes in American literature. The narrator Ishmael awakens to find the heavily tattooed, South-Sea Islander, harpooner and sometime cannibal Queequeg in his bed. In a few days he and Queequeg have overcome their initial shock and have become good friends. Chapter thirteen, titled “Wheelbarrow,” is not as well-known, but deserves to be since it is very relevant to contemporary discussions of multiculturalism, western “civilization” and other hotly contested issues.

This chapter begins with the two men making their way to the docks where they have booked passage on a packet schooner. The small ship will bring them to Nantucket, where Ahab’s whaling-ship, the Pequod, awaits them.

Queequeg has borrowed a wheelbarrow, which is loaded with the two men’s gear, including Queequeg’s harpoons. As they make their way to the docks, Queequeg lets Ishmael in on his comic mishap with the first wheelbarrow he ever saw. Now that the South-Sea Islander feels comfortable with his white companion, he doesn’t mind letting him know about his occasional difficulties with white civilization.

One time, after Queequeg had just arrived in the port of Sag Harbor, his captain lent him a wheelbarrow so he could get his heavy chest from the ship to the boarding-house in town. Queequeg didn’t quite know how to use the contraption, so he loaded his chest on the wheelbarrow and then carried both the wheelbarrow and its contents into town on his head. Ishmael says, “Queequeg, you might have known better than that, one would think. Didn’t the people laugh?”

This leads Queequeg to tell him another story. On his native island of Rokovoko, there is always a ceremonial large calabash at wedding feasts that is filled with the fragrant water of young coconuts. One day a large merchant ship docked at the island on the occasion of Queequeg’s sister’s wedding, to which they invite the captain. The feast began with a ceremonial blessing of the calabash, which includes the tribal high priest dipping his fingertips into the bowl before passing it around so people can fill their cups with the blessed nectar. The captain, who is seated next to priest, views himself as being more powerful than the priest and consequently takes it upon himself to wash his hands in the bowl. “Now,” said Queequeg, “what you tink now?–Didn’t our people laugh?”

Once Queequeg and Ishmael are on the deck of the packet schooner, Ishmael notices the other passengers gawking at Queequeg. Some are so rude as to make disrespectful gestures behind Queequeg’s back. He catches one of them out of the corner of his eye and throws him bodily into the air. When the startled young man lands on his feet, he goes running to the captain crying out, “Capting, Capting, here’s the Devil,” referring to Queequeg.

The captain approaches Queequeg and lectures him for nearly killing his tormentor. Queequeg explains that the young man he threw in the air was a only a “small fish-e” and that he only kills big whales. At that very moment, the mainsail boom become unlashed and begins swinging wildly back and forth. Not only does it throw the crew into a complete panic, it knocks Queequeg’s tormentor into the water. Everybody is frozen in panic.

At this point, Queequeg goes into action. He grabs hold of a rope and secures one end to a bulwark. With the other end, he fashions a lasso and tosses it on the wayward boom which he brings under control. As soon as this is done, he jumps into the water in the general direction of the man overboard. Melville writes:

“A few minutes more, and he rose again, one arm still striking out, and with the other dragging a lifeless form. The boat soon picked them up. The poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump; the captain begged his pardon. From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive.”

Queequeg took all this in stride and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. He didn’t seem to think that he deserved a medal. He only asked for some fresh water to wash the brine off with. Once that was done, he put on dry clothes and began to smoke his pipe. Ishmael thought that the expression on Queequeg’s face seem to say “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.”

Melville was a very careful, deliberate writer who chose words carefully. Why would he have the cannibal describe the world in these commercial terms? Doesn’t joint-stock seem to describe the world that Ishmael was fleeing: the isle of Manhattan, “belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf.” The words “joint-stock” are chosen in irony. Melville was very familiar with the South-Sea island societies and knew that stock ownership of any sort was alien to such peoples.

Melville was no social scientist, but his alienation from American capitalism was clearly expressed through his fiction. Moby Dick was written in 1851 and by this time there could be no mistake about the direction of the country. It was becoming wealthy through slave labor, subjugation of the Indian and domination of the world’s oceans, just as England had done before it. This would very likely explain why three of Moby Dick’s most sympathetic characters are Doggo, an African, Tashtego, an American Indian, and Queequeg.

It would also explain why Ahab and his fellow Christian profiteers are so villainous. I have never understood why American literary critics equate the great white whale with evil, when it seems so obvious that what disturbs Melville is commerce itself and not the hunted animal. We must remember that nobody has really analyzed the system at this point. European novelists and poets simply regarded it as the “factory system”, but didn’t quite understand what made it tick. Meanwhile, America’s greatest writer takes as his subject the whaling factory of the open waters. It is not an oppressive place, but nonetheless there is something about the single-minded desire to kill whales that troubles the writer. Perhaps Melville understood the final logic of such expeditions–they would lead to the extinction of one of the world’s noblest creatures. Since Melville wrote literature rather than propaganda, we can not be sure. This ambiguity, of course, is what gives Moby Dick so much power.

The slaughter of whales, like the slaughter of beavers and buffaloes, were key elements in the development of American capitalism. In the final fifty years of the 19th century, capitalism in the United States became better understood as a social system. European socialism was imported into the United States as the labor movement took root. In the next fifty years, from 1900 to the mid-century mark, this system gained hegemony all over the world. The American Indian had been herded into reservations; the South-Sea islanders–from Hawaii to the Bikini Atolls–had lost their land and way of life; the African-American had been freed from slavery but still faced Jim Crow. For the past fifty years, these kinds of people–the ones who had suffered the most when American world domination was being born–have been taking important steps to regain their rights. Reading works like Moby Dick will prove useful in understanding how such peoples were viewed by a sympathetic writer. Melville’s writings are like hieroglyphs that can uncover the secret, brutal and evil origins of the American system. Since we need to understand our history better in order to change society today, works like Moby Dick are essential reading. At a certain level, they tell us something that the social scientists can never tell us and that is who we really are.

While Herman Melville never achieved the sort of superstar status of Dickens or Twain, he too attempted a career as a public lecturer. Part of his repertory was a talk on the South Seas. Although the full text is not extant, we do have notes from a “phonographist” from the Baltimore American newspaper on February 8, 1859.

Melville recounts Balboa’s discovery of the South Seas: “The thronging Indians opposed Balboa’s passage, demanding who he was, what he wanted, and whither he was going. The reply is a model of Spartan directness. ‘I am a Christian, my errand is to spread the true religion and to seek gold, and I am going in search of the sea.'”

Melville wonders if the Europeans will begin to tour the charming isles of the South Seas? His reply:

“Why don’t the English yachters give up the prosy Mediterranean and sail out here? Any one who treats the natives fairly is just as safe as if he were on the Nile or Danube. But I am sorry to say we whites have a sad reputation among many of the Polynesians. They esteem us, with rare exceptions, such as some of the missionaries, the most barbarous, treacherous, irreligious, and devilish creatures on the earth. It may be a mere prejudice of these unlettered savages, for have not our traders always treated them with brotherly affection? Who has ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside–splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?”

The final paragraphs are the phonographist’s own words and it is too bad that we don’t have Melville’s. They deal with the colonization of the South Sea islands:

“The rapid advance, in the externals only, of civilized life was then spoken of, and the prospect of annexing the Sandwich Islands to the American Union commented on, with the remark that the whalemen of Nantucket and the Westward ho! Of California were every day getting them more and more annexed.

“The lecturer closed with an earnest wish that adventurers from our soil and from the lands of Europe would abstain from those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise into a pandemonium. And as for annexations he begged, as a general philanthropist, to offer up an earnest prayer, and he entreated all present to join him in it, that the banns [public announcements] of that union should be forbidden until we had found for ourselves a civilization moral, mental, and physical, higher than the one which has culminated in almshouses, prisons, and hospitals.”

An exchange on Cormac McCarthy from Feral Scholar

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

This is an exchange from Stan Goff’s Feral Scholar. It was prompted by a post there from “Malooga” of the Moon Over Alabama blog that originally appeared as a comment on my own blog about Cormac McCarthy. John Steppling is a partisan of Cormac McCarthy. DeAnander is not.

John Steppling:

Well, it dissapoints me that the response here is so predictable. The complaint that no progressive voice is heard in the film, or book, is really the basic problem of leftist critics these days…..maybe always. Art is not here to lecture. Lectures do that fine, and essays. The questions McCarthy raises are about personal identity and the chain of relations in bougeoisie society that implicate everyone in the violence around us. The dialogue in the film (and the film has several big problems…..most clearly in how Chigurh is depicted) is straight from McCarthy, so to call it southern fried homilies suggests a rather bad ear on the part of the listener. Im curious what people here think of as good art these days? Im serious in this…….because for me McCarthy is perhaps, along with Pinter, the best living writer in English. The narrative reflects the world as it is, not as it should be. Thats not what art is meant to do. The pathologies of modern society, the inequalities and contradictions of advanced capital find expression in the wholesale sadism of these characters — and the sheriffs slowly dawning awareness of compassion and more importantly his own complicity. Alientation operates this way. Adorno certainly understood this about culture……as did Horkheimer and Marcuse. So the quote above is almost ironic given the comments so far.

* * * * *


Steppling: “The narrative reflects the world as it is, not as it should be. Thats not what art is meant to do.”

I was thinking about this contention, which is routinely invoked by everyone from pornographers to propagandists — er, what am I saying? by pornographers and other propagandists — to claim that their work is not propaganda, but is somehow “objective” (ah, the good ol’ Objectivity meme).

Here I’m inclined to quote (or misquote) D Jensen: “every writer is a propagandist — including me.” every piece of literature is a kind of propaganda in the sense that it has been filtered repeatedly through authorial, editorial, and publishers’ agendas.

C McCarthy chooses — in the tradition of H Ellison and other horrormongers of the literary world — to focus narrowly on what is worst and most brutal in the human condition. except for a less absurdly clunky prose style I am not sure how far different he is from a Bret Easton Ellis.

At any moment in time, the human race is busy committing atrocities and cruelties, and also, maybe right next door, committing acts of great courage and altruism. the first act of non-objectivity is the choice, from among an infinite number of historical or contemporary subjects, of a particular story to tell. it could be the story of the Chiapas uprising or the Mondragon co-ops or the Maquis. or it could be the story of a Mafia family or a serial killer. a decision has to be made, and someone makes it.

What narrative the writer chooses to narrate, and whom he chooses as protagonist, is relevant; it serves the writer’s agenda, it demonstrates the writer’s position, it is not “objective.” even an allegedly fact-based book like one of Junger’s (The Perfect Storm was his big hit), or a biography, still serves the author’s intent and presents us with a moral-of-the-story which is meant to instruct us.

When people hotly claim that Art need not and should not represent a moral agenda, they forget Zinn’s dictum that you can’t be neutral on a moving train 🙂 art is not reality; it is a highly filtered cartoon of reality, and that cartoon is always a political cartoon, one way or another. the story, and the moral the story tells, will always be pointed and selective. it will humanise some characters and dehumanise others, internalise some points of view and externalise others, tell us that some things are believable and some things are unrealistic, some things are possible and some things are not, some behaviours are rewarded and some are punished.

And it will tell us what matters in every line and paragraph: the choice of narrative, cast, which interactions are described in full and which are left in the background, which objects and artifacts and settings are described and how they are described, will tell us repeatedly (whacking us over the head repeatedly with, in fact) what the author thinks is important and relevant and therefore, by mirror neurons or whatever mechanism you want to blame or credit, what we as the reader will — temporarily — also accept as important and relevant for the duration of our suspension of disbelief and our immersion in the experience. if the book is a very powerful one, or if we have a habit of reading in a specific genre with consistent narrative rules (boyshit suspense/adventure, for example, or girly supermarket romances), the repeated messaging about what is important and what is not important may eventually become permanent programming. and isn’t that what propaganda aims at?

When this is done flagrantly and clumsily, especially in service of an agenda that may not even be the writer’s own (i.e. paid PR flacks, professional black-ops myth-makers, and other salaried liars and spinners) we do call it propaganda — and sneer at it. when it’s done flagrantly and clumsily in earnest service of a worthy moral agenda, like tediously predictable “racial reconciliation” movies or quaint Victorian or Edwardian morality tales for the kiddies, we also sneer at it a bit and call it preachy; sermonising often spoils a good story, at least if you’re an adult (kids can probably overlook, for example, the heavy handed Christian symbolism of C S Lewis’s kid-books, but for an adult reader it gets to be a bit much after a while).

But when the sermonising or preachiness upholds an agenda that we are not allowed to name (like, say, heteronormativity or male supremacy or capitalism or neodarwinism) it passes for “objective” just because our literary feelers aren’t calibrated to scan the bar code on the agenda; we come up against a Laingian void — the Unmarked Category — be it neoliberalism or masculinism or US exceptionalism or whatever, and have to resort to unfamiliar “left-specific” jargon, clumsy locutions, and “argh can’t quite put my finger on it” unease to identify it.

Imho there is an established ideology of despair regarding the human condition; nihilism, cynicism, anomie, whatever you want to call it. and it has a powerful literature of propaganda conveying the moral lesson that life is meaningless, people are stupid and cruel, everyone is our for him/herself, no one can be trusted, the most you can hope for is to grab some bling while the grabbing is good. this moral lesson greatly serves the imperial/capitalist system… first, it defines ugly, greedy, grabby, and violent criminal behaviour as perfectly normal and only to be expected — indeed, as all that is possible or reasonable; next, it defines altruism, loyalty, compassion, and so forth as unrealistic, fictional, mythical, not to be attempted or expected in the “real” world (else the attempter will meet with severe negative consequences); third, it seeks to instil despair and a loathing for our fellow humans, just as flagrantly and overtly as chirpy feel-good kiddie stories seek to instil hope or good dental hygiene or kindness to elders. it is essentially a propaganda for the normalisation of sociopathy, and in a sociopathic and elitist economic and political regime it is — predictably — a preferred and encouraged literary and artistic form.

Above all, superaccumulator elites (whether they be pharaohs or kings or CEOs) need to convince the people that another world is NOT possible: that justice is a chimera, loyalty and commensality are a pathetic delusion, there is nothing to be done and nothing to hope for or strive towards. the literature of despair serves this agenda well.

Literature that blissfully denies the potential wickedness of human behaviour is no more preachy or biased or unrealistic than literature that denies the potential goodness of human behaviour. the literary school of the Unrelentingly Grim and Ugly (not to be mistaken for the Cautionary Tale as in Swift or Sinclair) should not be accepted passively, w/o critique, as some kind of objective form outside politics and ethical discourse; it is a sermon in its own right, just a sermon for a different creed.

Much of contemporary pornography is, I would say, the distilled essence of the nihilistic school of literature, w/o any highbrow pretensions to cloak the sermon: it openly celebrates cruelty, greed, and hatefulness, and expressly denies that any sexual relations other than instrumentality and exploitation are possible.

And now we get to the big weaselly area: under what circumstances is a deeply dystopian, grim, dour, and hopeless piece of literature a cautionary tale, i.e. a warning against the worst excesses of our human nature, rather than a normalisation of them? satirists and cautionary fabulists have often been accused in their day of undermining moral fibre, being too shocking, too graphic, too negative, stripping away the decencies that make human society bearable. was e.g. Lord of the Flies a cautionary tale, or just a cry of despair? I’m not enough of a lit crit to pinpoint the distinctions but I would say that in most cautionary tales there is at least one character or group of characters who represent the other world that is possible, i.e. altruism, decency, kindness. they may or may not “win” (the story could have a happy or tragic ending) but they do exist and their moral qualities are not derided as illusory (though they may not be sufficient to carry the day).

I’ve got a relevant quote or two somewhere around here…

This one will do…

What encourages me in this process is the “delight” that I take in the human struggle. Delight in mankind [sic] — that was the idea launched or rather relaunched in the twelfth century by the forces of humanism as they woke society from its Dark Ages.

The Roman poet, Terence, had said long before: “I am human and nothing human is foreign to me.” It was an attitude the humanists embraced in what they saw as a struggle between delight and self-loathing — delight in your fellow man and woman, sympathy for them; in other words, a sense of society.

— J R Saul, The Unconscious Civilisation, peroration of ‘The Great Leap Backwards’.

I could pick quite a few nits here; the glorification of the Enlightenment and the glib dismissal of a very rich and varied historical period as “Dark Ages”, for one. A big dose of Eurocentrism, for seconds… but JRS imho is onto something in his analysis of the difference between a stance of loathing for one’s fellow human beings, and one of delight and/or sympathy. We will not build a society of sharing and mutual aid if we believe that none of the people around is is decent or deserving of help, that they are all a bunch of greedy dirty ratfinks. The very concept of “society” (the very existence of which neolibs like Margaret Thatcher openly denied) presupposes a kind of mutual regard, interest, and trust for our fellow human beings.

So (winding up this overlong comment at last) I agree with Malooga’s analysis that literature/movies which present us (people) as uniformly self-interested and/or helplessly trapped in structures which prohibit the expression of our human sympathies and empathies are — whether expressly intended to be or not — a very effective propaganda for the new right and the new corporate/financial aristocracy.

Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy: an A-B comparison

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

Gold versus Bullshit

Herman Melville

Cormac McCarthy

A Lexis-Nexis search containing both “Herman Melville” and “Cormac McCarthy” returns 116 articles. As you can probably guess, most of them are in effusive praise of McCarthy, hailing him as the second coming of my favorite author. This is typical from John Banville, a steadfast member of the McCarthy cult:

The Crossing is not an easy book. The prose is stark and densely muscled, the punctuation eccentric. Much of the dialogue is in Spanish (though it is surprisingly easy to follow). There are long philosophical digressions which frequently topple over into pathos. Despite all this, the book is an astonishing achievement, admirable for its nerve as much as for its persuasiveness. McCarthy has his precursors – Melville, Hemingway, Jack London – yet he is unique in contemporary writing.

(The Irish Times, August 27, 1994)

Keeping this comparison in the back of your mind, let’s take a look at a sample of Melville side-by-side with McCarthy:

From chapter 36 of “Moby Dick“:

All this while Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg had looked on with even more intense interest and surprise than the rest, and at the mention of the wrinkled brow and crooked jaw they had started as if each was separately touched by some specific recollection.

“Captain Ahab,” said Tashtego, “that white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick.”

“Moby Dick?” shouted Ahab. “Do ye know the white whale then, Tash?”

“Does he fan-tail a little curious, sir, before he goes down?” said the Gay-Header deliberately.

“And has he a curious spout, too,” said Daggoo, “very bushy, even for a parmacetty, and mighty quick, Captain Ahab?”

“And he have one, two, tree – oh! good many iron in him hide, too, Captain,” cried Queequeg disjointedly, “all twiske-tee betwisk, like him – him – ” faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle – “like him – him – “

“Corkscrew!” cried Ahab, “aye, Queequeg, the harpoons lie all twisted and wrenched in him; aye, Daggoo, his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearing; aye, Tashtego, and he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall. Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen – Moby Dick – Moby Dick!”

“Captain Ahab,” said Starbuck, who, with Stubb and Flask, had thus far been eyeing his superior with increasing surprise, but at last seemed struck with a thought which somewhat explained all the wonder. “Captain Ahab, I have heard of Moby Dick – but it was not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?”

“Who told thee that?” cried Ahab; then pausing, “Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the horn, and round the norway maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.”

“Aye, aye!” shouted the harpooneers and seamen, running closer to the excited old man: “A sharp eye for the White Whale; a sharp lance for Moby Dick!”

“God bless ye,” he seemed to half sob and half shout. “God bless ye, men. Steward! go draw the great measure of grog. But what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale? art not game for Moby Dick?”


From chapter 3 of “Blood Meridian”. McCarthy does not enclose his dialog in quotes, a breakthrough–I suppose–that ranks with Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness in the eyes of his cult followers.

How old are you, son?


The captain nodded his head. He was looking the kid over. What happened to you?


Say sir, said the recruiter Sir?

I said what happened to you

Robbers, said the captain

Not no more I aint.

Where was it you were robbed

I was comin from Naca, Naca Nacogdoches? Yeah.

Yessir. Yessir.

How many were there? The kid stared at him.

Robbers. How many robbers.

Seven or eight, I reckon. I busted in the head with a scantling.

The captain squinted one eye at him. Were they Mexicans?

Some. Mexicans and niggers. They was a white or two with em. They had a bunch of cattle they’d stole. Only thing they left me with was a old piece of knife I had in my boot.

The captain nodded. He folded his hands between his knees. What do you think of the treaty? he said.

The kid looked at the man on the settle next to him. He had his eyes shut. He looked down at his thumbs. I dont know nothin about it, he said.

I’m afraid that’s the case with a lot of Americans, said the captain. Where are you from, son?


You werent with the Volunteers at Monterrey were you?

No sir.

Bravest bunch of men under fire I believe I ever saw. I sup­pose more men from Tennessee bled and died on the field in northern Mexico than from any other state. Did you know that?

No sir.

They were sold out. Fought and died down there in that desert and then they were sold out by their own country.

The kid sat silent.

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