Herman Melville, “Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile” (1855)

“In view of this battle one may well ask—What separates the enlightened man from the savage? Is civilization a thing distinct, or is it an advanced stage of barbarism?” (573)

After the failure of Pierre, or the Ambiguities, Herman Melville entered a troubled period in his life. Most of his works had been commercial failures. He faced depression and poverty. His family tried to get him appointed a consul without any luck. He published works in magazines over the next few years, including the serialization of Israel Potter and the works that would be included in the Piazza Tales. Melville, by the way, is 36 at this time. Melville was not a fan of Israel Potter and deemed it a money-making effort.

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The book is apparently based on a real story from a pamphlet that Melville acquired about a Revolutionary War soldier, captured at sea, and exiled to Europe for fifty years. The novel that results is full of clichés and dubious encounters. In the course of his travels Potter meets King George III, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones. Apparently some of these encounters were real, according to the original autobiography. Dramatized, they take on the character of American jingoism, hitting home—again and again—the belief that America was young, free, and practical while Europe was corrupted by excess, wealth, privilege, and aristocratic hierarchies. Just a few of these examples include Potter working for a knight who accepts that he will never get the American to address him as “Sir,” Benjamin Franklin praising Potter’s wisdom at not knowing what cologne is and reciting some of his maxims on thrift, and the King of England learning he will be unable to defeat the United States just by looking at the rebel Potter. Much of it seems wasted coming from the pen of Melville.

Potter engages in various schemes pushed forward by Franklin and Jones. He even serves under Jones for a while, giving the tale a some of the feel of the sea fiction that Melville is known for. Most of the later half of the novel is spent at sea, with Potter serving under Jones.Through this, he is able to play pivotal roles in the Revolution despite being far from the frontline battles that he started with (and even farther from the fields he left to engage the British at Bunker Hill). He even meets Ethan Allen during Allen’s imprisonment in England, which turns into another attempt by Melville to juxtapose the solidarity, patriotism, and equality of America with the pretension of England. The period after the Revolution is rushed. Most of Potter’s life is crammed into one chapter titled “Forty-Five Years.” He spends that wandering about London, pining for home and dwelling on the decadence of the world he was stuck in. “And so, Israel, now an old man, was bewitched by the mirage of vapors; he had dreamed himself home into the mists of the Housatonic mountains; the flat, apathetic, dead, London fog had not seemed from those agile mists, which goat-like, climbed the purple peaks, or in routed armies of phantoms, broke down, pell-mell, dispersed in flight upon the plain. . . . all kinds of labor were overstocked. Beggars, too, lighted on the walls like locusts.” (610) The first chapter foreshadows the mists of London as a sharp contrast to the mists of New England. Eventually he returns home to die.

One message is that Potter was able to sustain his American patriotism and, more importantly, his American identity remains despite his long period of exile. Melville is also revisiting some of his ideas from Omoo about the relationship between wandering and freedom. While Potter would was nothing better than to return home, making him quite different from the deserting soldiers who seem to not have a clear goal in their wanderings except to avoid cruel masters or poor conditions, he becomes a wanderer. His name is highlighted here. While born of Puritan stock and named out of Puritan religious commitments, he ends his life closer to the Wandering Jew (right from the text, page 610). Was it this wandering and rootlessness that was the true reason he was able to hold onto his Americanism. Had he been settled onto land, married into an English family, and raised English children would he have remained the patriot to his death? It does not seem likely to me. Is this a tragic component of American identity? They are constantly on the move, constantly discontent, but always longing for a home.

If this was the fate of Americans at the time of Melville’s writing, the entire world has been Americanized now. Not in the silly cultural symbols—indeed universal around the world now—but in the frustrating liquidity of life. The most tragic part of the tale comes when Potter returns to his beloved home to find everything different and decayed. It is not a Rip Van Winkle story. He does not return to a world of industry. He finds instead a burnt out homestead. “Ere long, on the mountain side, he passed into an ancient natural wood, which seemed some way familiar, and midway in it, paused to contemplate a strange mouldy pile, resting at one end against a sturdy beech. Though wherever touched by his staff, however lightly, this pile would crumble, yet here and there, even in powder, it preserved the exact look, each irregularly defined line, of what it has originally been.” (614) The conclusion is not how things have changed or how boldly America progressed. It was the much more pathetic “[f]ew things remain.” With this, Melville predicted the real horror of late capitalism’s endless projections into the future as it clamors for immortality. It can no longer leave much of value behind.

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H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” (Conclusions)

I have just finished up with the Library of America collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. While I have read some of his stories previously, I never read through his major stories systematically before.  Five stories wrapped up the volume. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about a young student who visits the Massachusetts town of Innsmouth to discover a cult worshiping Dagon, and worse a population of half-fish people. In the end he decides to embrace his family legacy and embrace a transformation into one of those creatures. “The Dreams of the Witch House” connects the Cthulhu mythos to new developments in uncertainty in math and science at the turn of the last century. In this story, a math student investigates the Arkham “Witch House” and learns of its role as a portal. It is particularly interesting for its use of mathematics as a device of horror and the unknown. The student ends up a sacrifice victim of yet another cult to the Elder gods.  “The Thing on the Doorstep” tells the story of the killing of an aparently insane man, who was able to reside in other people’s bodies and even corpses. “The Shadow Out of Time” is about the “Great Race” of aliens who visit Earth through body possessions. Finally, “The Haunter of the Dark” is notable as the only story in the collection with Nyarlathotep as an antagonist.

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I avoided reading Lovecraft in my youth, despite an almost total mastery of his works by a fair number of my close friends. I knew the name early enough and he may even be the first American writer I knew by name (saving for children’s writers, of course). Of course, I knew of his works my osmosis and by the massive cultural influence he had. Lovecraft’s works have inspired writings that far surpass in quantity his original works. (Can anyone show me an anthology of stories inspired by the works of Herman Melville?) He has also inspired board games, role playing games, music, a “NecronomiCon,” and more B-films than most of us would want to watch. As I was considering before, there is something odd about this popularity considering the values of the American people, focusing on progress, freedom, personal autonomy, equality (and let’s not forget Christianity). If we look at some of the major components of Lovecraft’s writings we can see that they seem to run at odds with these values. In other words, Lovecraft is perhaps not what Tocqueville would have predicted to be one of the most important cultural artifacts of a democracy.

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1. Cargo Cult religions pop up all over the world based on the worship of indifferent, powerful, aliens.
2. Science fails to explain the world.
3. Fear is the primary emotion of humanity.
4. Knowledge should be feared and the curious are punished.
5. The senses are incapable of describing most of the universe.

So what can we make of this?

I am wondering now if Lovecraft’s popularity and cultural influence is akin to the rise of religious fundamentalism or new religious movements in this country. (I cannot speak to Lovecraft’s popularity outside of the English-speaking world. He is certainly mostly unknown in Taiwan.) Perhaps we can return to Lovecraft’s conservatism for an answer to this. The core of his conservatism seems to be directed at the consequences of industrialization: the city, immigration, manufacturing.  In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” a small town is literally left behind by the rest of the world.  What was once a vibrant merchant town because a marginalized fishing town, just barely scraping by.  That trope shows up in other stories as well, showing the entire communities left behind by progress and modernity.  Innsmouth was actually once quite a cosmopolitan place, with many Pacific Islanders living there as a byproduct of New England’s place in Pacific trade. When being left behind, what did Innsmouth turn to but the “Esoteric Order o’ Dagon.” Is this not a reading of late capitalist America.  Never fully industrialized (it is far too big for that), with huge sections of the country filled with truck stop towns, old mining villages, and rust belt cities, America has been hit hard by global capitalism’s tendency to bypass the areas that are not of immediate value. Facing the uncertainty of liquid modernity, people turned to fatalism of the unknown (comforting themselves that it is unknowable), new religions or revived old faiths.  In this sense, maybe we can identify and describe the malevolent external horrors that so terrified Lovecraft and his characters.  Perhaps it is in an embrace of the religious realm that many of us were capable of understanding a world that really is indifferent to us.

I still think that unknowability is politically vapid and works to confine us and makes excuses for inaction, I do think its popularity is at least explicable.

Philip K. Dick, Conclusion

My series on Philip K. Dick is complete. There are a number of novels I did not touch and of course I discussed the stories only as occasional references. I feel, that there is enough material to begin to map out the major themes.

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1. Post-Scarcity, the End of Work, and Inequality. Many of Dick’s science-fiction novels consider the dilemma of work and post-scarcity. The question, how do we come to terms with the inequality caused by the technological destruction of productive work. His novels are populated with what Zygmunt Bauman called “wasted lives,” the excess population of late capitalism.

2. Technology and the Future of Freedom. Dick is largely a technophobe due to the ability of technology to destroy human freedom. Technology often plays a role in distorting our reality, empowering the state, and establishing a surveillance society.

3. The Nature and Function of Corporate and Political Power. In a related theme, through Dick we can consider the changing functions of the state with the decline of the welfare state and nationalism as well as the transformation of the role of corporate power with the decline of manufacturing. As it turn outs, both become more psychopathic.

4. The Crisis of Monogamy and Family. Dick lived this crisis through five marriages. His insistence on marriage is not unfamiliar to many people in the late industrial west and his embrace of serial monogamy is all but universal. Perhaps too many of his novels consider the dilemma of liquid love in a liquid world alongside our desire for stability in an unstable liquid world. As a result we grasp at relationships and make reckless commitments.

5. Insanity and Everyday Life. Dick argues that one consequence of late capitalism is the normalcy of mental illness. How this fits with his definition of humanity as memory and empathy is explored in a few novels.

6. The Rise of Religious Delusion. Like with the question of marriage, this is something Dick explored personally through his exploration of religion in the later 1970s until his death. Religion becomes a means for us to create a firm foundation in a liquid world, but for Dick it went farther and became a source of truth, not merely consolation or security.

7. The Desolation of the Frontier. Dick places the frontier in various locations in the Solar System. Experiencing the end of the frontier in California and noticing the death of the American frontier as a location of rebirth of democracy (Frederick Jackson Turner). Instead, the frontier is a blighted landscape where people eke out miserable existences.

8. A Consumer Dystopia. Instead of an optimistic frontier, Dick gives us a consumer dystopia. Goods are cheap. Even rocket ships to other planets are cheap. People consume drugs, mood-altering chemicals, and sentimental objects from earlier eras to cope with meaningless and directionless lives.

9. Resistance. Dick is a pessimistic writer, but we can find in his works suggestions of optimism through the potential of resistance. Thankfully, in all but a few cases, the troubles that people face are easily identifiable. Even when reality is being manipulated, there is always a manipulator. By exposing the lie, or simply by being good to one another, resistance to the empires of lies and exploitation is possible.

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Philip K. Dick does seem to me to be a writer exploring many themes of interest to anarchists, particularly those of us trying to navigate a strategy through late capitalism.  His answers and suggestions may strikes some of us as naive, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot-on.

Thanks to the followers of this series.  I will continue next week with my regular readings of the Library of America, starting with Ambrose Bierce.

Philip K. Dick “The Cosmic Puppets” (1957): “All That Is Solid Melts into Air”

The Cosmic Puppets is one of Philip K. Dick’s early novels exploring the theme of fungible or alternative realities.  Actually, the opening chapters present a common enough problem.  Ted Barton is taking a trip with his wife to his hometown, Millgate Virginia.  He finds his hometown unrecognizable.  Barton’s experience is extreme as any recognizable characteristic in Millgate is dramatically changed.  Yet, this is something that is not uncommon in a liquid world, where the pace of change makes use feel that we do not have a firm setting to anyplace and that changes occur faster than we can process them.  The important people in our lives change year to year.  New construction or decaying communities make our idyllic memories of our youth cruel abstractions, which we cannot quite prove occurred.  Pictures present only dubious, partial suggestions of how things were.  Our memories, collective and individual, are not to be trusted.  If there is one thing surprising in the early chapters of The Comic Puppets, it is that Barton is so immediately sure that Millgate has changed.  Most of us experience the constant plasticity of our worlds with a bit more caution.  “Wasn’t there a building here?  Was that always there?  I seem to recall a parking lot in this district?  What happened to Mr. Zemke?”

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Barton is sure that Millgate has changed and despite the resistance of his wife (who spends most of the novel either in a hotel or on the phone with a divorce lawyer – Dick, in real life and in fiction did not mind breaking up marriages), begins to investigate.  He finds that he was supposed to have died at nine, the very age that he left the down. There is even a record of his death due to scarlet fever.  There are two types of people in the community.  Some, indeed most, have been changed along with the town and have no memory of the past structure.  A few others, Wanderers and a gentleman named Christopher, have an awareness that things have changed and formed a bit of resistance to the forces that have transformed the town.  After recovering a park to its original state through the application of his untainted memory.  Barton also meets Dr. Meade

Two children, Peter and Mary, are in constant conflict using proxies (golems, bees, spiders, snakes).  Peter turns out to be an avatar of Ormazd, a Zoroastrian deity.  Mary is Armaiti, the daughter of Ahriman, who has taken the avatar of Dr. Meade.  The battle between these forces leaves Millgate and enters the cosmos, never ending, but leaving Barton’s town in peace.

So, the transformations Barton and the townspeople experienced was not simply a loss of memory but a directed plot by malevolent forces.  In this way, Dick is again describing the world we live in, the world of late capitalism.  Our displacement, mobility, and liquidity are not inevitable realities but the direct result of the institutions that in fact control our lives and our memories.

The possibility of resistance to these realities is not clear.  The Wanderers and Christopher attempt to change things back, but their memories are incomplete and untrustworthy.  Indeed, they seem to be how most of us experience these changes.  In a comical scene, Barton and the Wanderers attempt to reconstruct the town but can only come to the conclusion that Barton’s precision is proof that he is a double-agent for the malevolent forces responsible for the change.  Internally, they can only struggle to come to terms with the liquidity.  Barton has a pure memory because he was led from the town at the age of nine by Mary and allowed to return, despite an artificial quarantine established by Ormazd.  He is a secret weapon because of his pure memory.  Nevertheless, the institutions of late modernity are all powerful, like the Zoroastrian gods Dick conjures to make his point.  Memory is a powerful antidote to plenty of institutional lies.  (No, you do not need a cell phone or iPad or automobile.  Yes, there was a time when salaries kept up with productivity.  We used to get by without millions in the prison-industrial system.)  Historians, however useless most of them are, still have an important role in establishing a collective memory of alternatives to the existing reality.  As the pace of change quickens and “all that is solid melts into air” their role will become more important.  That is, as long as historians do not fall into the ideological constructs of global modernity – which is essentially what so-called “World History” does when it praises the accomplishments of explorers, conquerors, global capitalists, empire builders, and religious leaders.

Here is Zygmunt Bauman on “Liquid Modernity”: