H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 2

The second half of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series carries on topically exploring issues as diverse as the application of the work ethic to artists to Prohibition. The articles continue Mencken’s assault on American conformity and democracy, but they are so wide-ranging that it starts to really seem that he is onto something. He even manages what can be seen as a critique of capitalism. However, he is not really opposed to it as exploitation of working people. The problem with capitalism and capitalists is that they are driven to banality by the pursuit of wealth (something Mencken does not really respect, although he understands it). That it also seems to drive workers toward the fad of socialism does not help matters. His criticism of capitalism (or at times state power) is derived from what he sees as the same ill of democracy. It forces most of us to lazy thoughts and conformity. The two most important essays in this volume after “The National Letters” are his explorations of Prohibition and marriage.

But let us start with “The Divine Afflatus,” which is mostly a criticism of the application of the work ethic to art. He questions the work of a journalist named Chesterton, for his argument that creative inspiration does not exist and that creativity is largely a function of how hard an artist works. Mencken relies that inspiration is variable and contextual and simply cannot be confined to a simple formula such as “write one thousand words a day.” At the end, he states his fear that the artist will become a manufacturer. As he probably well knew, many writers were already essentially manufacturers churning out stories for pulp magazines at dizzying rates.

“Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue” is a brief questioning of the value of altruism. It is not some proto-Ayn Rand. Just an investigation about why people are so willing to do favors for others that seem to provide no pleasure to the favor giver and are based on lies. (Think of the professor trying to write nice things about an atrocious student essay.)
“The Allied Arts” is about music, painting, and stage. If you read Mencken you know he often has music in his mind. He cannot help himself but bring Beethoven or Wagner into the discussion. In fact, these seem to be his model of the great artists. His general thesis in “The Allied Arts” is that the vast majority of human beings simply cannot appreciate music and should not try. He is glad that rich people fund music but doubt that they understand it at all. He questions the gaudiness of the visual components of opera. As with literature, “the allied arts” are challenged by the same tendency toward mediocrity, stage is perhaps the most susceptible.

“The Cult of Hope” and “The Dry Millennium” are about reform, in particular Prohibition. The first essay is a warning against allowing criticism to be taken in by reform efforts. We have seen this before when Mencken expressed discomfort at criticism or literature becoming essentially an adjunct to political efforts. He praises Havelock Ellis for having the honesty to point out that no prostitute was more dangerous to a community than a vice squad. This is something contemporary Americans know well as they are finally approaching sanity on the “war on drugs.”

“The Dry Millennium” is a brilliant and funny assault on Prohibition, which was just being enacted. He rightly argued that it would be futile to abolish the consumption and production of alcohol, but more troubling was Mencken’s conviction that the masses would more or less embrace Prohibition. None of the general strikes by working people emerged in response to Prohibition. While the masses will eat up the reform fad, any “civilized” people will stay in Europe. Women will embrace it because it means their husbands will stay at home, even if it means the lubricating effect of alcohol on relationships will be muted for a while. For Mencken, the problem with Prohibition is that it will simply exacerbate the worst characteristics of Americans.

“Appendix on a Tender Theme,” the final essay in Prejudices: Second Series, is about marriage and love. It starts with an anatomy of a relationship from romance, to the breaking of the spell, to habit. Yet, there is something promising in relationships and in love, something that promises to liberate people. Love and sex and relationships are dangerous and not at all boring or banal, despite the constant efforts of the social hygiene folks to reduce marriage to a science. The problem comes with the later phase of the relationship, when it descents into repetition and habit. There is no room for creativity and art in this relationship. He mentions the struggles Wagner had with creativity while married to Minna Planer. Thus there is something antithetical to the artist and marriage. Mencken speaks in gendered terms here (the artist is always a man; the mental block always a marriage to a woman), but we can universalize the concept, given any pairing of a creative person with a person who thinks marriage is best built with bricks and bars.

The day is saved, as every one knows, by the powerful effects of habit. The acquisition of habit is the process whereby disgust is overcome in daily life—the process whereby one may cease to be disgusted by a persistent noise or odor. One suffers horribly at first, but after a bit one suffers less, and in the course of time one scarcely suffers at all. Thus a man, when his marriage enters upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets use to his wife as he might get used to a tannery next door, and vice versa. I think that woman, in this direction, have the harder row to hoe, for they are more observant than men, and vastly more sensitive in small ways. But even women succumb to habit with humane rapidity, else every marriage would end in divorce. (290)

We have to (as usual) try to get beyond the sexist language to see the heart of the matter. Marriage endures because we are slavish and cowardly and easily seduced by routine. Our art sucks for the same reason.

James Baldwin, “Going the Meet the Man” (1965)

The Library of America volume of James’ Baldwin’s fiction ends with his 1965 short story collection Going to Meet the Man.  A common theme in Baldwin’s work is the daily-lived experience of racism in 20th century America that goes beyond the legal discrimination of Jim Crow.  It is these experiences that were so central to the lives of Northern blacks like Baldwin, whose families escaped the more formal discrimination of the South. I hesitate to say it was worse as in Baldwin’s mind the urban racism he wanted to describe was no less debilitation, brutal, or (as in the case of police repression) institutionalized.

baldwin

All eight stories are fascinating and provide insights into American racism from different ages and points of view.  I was reminded of The Dubliners in the way Baldwin progressively orders these stories from young to old – starting with vibrancy, curiosity, and potential and ending with impotence.  Not all of his characters are black.  Notably, the lead figure in “Going to Meet the Man” is a white sheriff who is incapable of having sex with his wife without remembering an act of racial violence he witnessed.  In general, Baldwin is reminding us of how important society is in defining our individual potential – more of then not setting limits for us.  The trouble is that autonomy and escape from social institutions – even in urban areas (the place where such escape should be possible) – is simply not possible when your identity is imposed on you from the outside.

“The Rockpile” revisits the family of Go Tell It on the Mountain.  Here it is the father, Gabriel, who defines his son as an outsider.  When his natural son, Roy, in injured when fighting with other boys on a local rockpile, the stepson, John must carry the blame.  The central institution in “The Rockpile” is the family and to a lesser degree religion, since John’s mother so often resorts to religion to justify her husband’s actions or demand John obey his stepfather or suffer his ordeals (like a good Christian).

“The Outing” gives us the same character and setting.  This time they are engaged in a Christian outing on a boat.  It strikes us as a rather nice setting and it is nice to observe some of the more playful freedom of the boys, who are mostly interested in the outing as a chance to spend time with some of the neighborhood girls.  Religion, of course, saturates the air and we see the parents working hard to keep their children focused on the religious purpose of the outing.  This can work as a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire polemic against social institutions, that they try to confine our individual free expression.  The expectation of being saved is placed on the boys at the end.  The cost of the gathering of the community is their future commitment to its values.

“The Man Child” is about the violent brought out by class resentment.  We are presented with two friends, Jamie and Eric’s father.  Jamie is a drunk, unmarried (he “lost” his wife), and an economic failure.  Eric’s father has achieved everything his friend lacks, including having a son, Eric.  While the two men stated at the same point but diverged greatly.  In resentment, desperation, or loneliness Jamie kills Eric.  While the previous two tales suggest the oppressive power of social institutions like family and tradition, “The Man Child” reminds us how devastating it can be to not have those things.

“Previous Conditions” is a more straightforward account of how race functions in America.  The narrator is a poor actor.  He sums up his dilemma: “I’m not tall and I’m not good looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand.” (816)  The story explores a series of slights he faces, including being kicked out of his apartment (he sublet from a white friend) because he was black.   He was taught as a child not to accept being called “nigger” but in his adulthood it has become part of the transcript of his life.  Despite his isolation the story ends with a simple act of kindness (innocently purchasing a round of beers for some women sitting next to him).  We also get a window into the mistrust and indifference of the urban setting.  “Anonymous, islanded people surrounded  me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes.  I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.)” (828)

“Sonny’s Blues” is a very powerful tale of a man who observes the fall of his younger brother into drugs after his decision to become a jazz musician.  After deciding to help his brother due to the death of his 2-year-old daughter we gain access to the narrator’s memories, particularly how he was charged with caring for his younger brother after the death of their father.  Sonny, the younger brother, is through all of this a more infantile character, relying on the care of others.  The narrator was scornful of Sonny’s choice to become a musician, even trying to believe that “musician” meant classical pianist.  When seeing the cleaned up Sonny perform at a bar, he learns how little he understood about Sonny’s powerful art, his renown, his talent, and how libertatory it was for him (even if that liberation was checked by drug use).  “It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament.  I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.  Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.  Yet, there was no battle in his face now.  I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.  He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy.” (863)  Music was a way to escape suffering and the burden of expectations (in this case also familial).

“This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” takes us back to the expat community in Paris (see Giovanni’s Room and Another Country for more examples of Baldwin’s interest in Americans in Paris as a setting for his work.  Its central theme is the relative freedom from discrimination that African-Americans felt when they moved to Europe.  This is an old theme.  Even Frederick Douglass wrote on this in reference to his travels in England.  The jazz musician Sindey Bichet moved to Paris to escape racism as well (I recall this in my mind, but do not quote me).  Let’s listen to a bit.

Anyway, Baldwin has some beautiful and lively descriptions of Paris here.  “So here are American boys, anything but beardless, scratching around for Hemingway; American girls, titillating themselves with Frenchmen and existentialism, while waiting for the American boys to shave off their beards; French painters, busily pursuing the revolution which ended thirty years ago; and the young, bored, perverted, American arrivistes who are buying their way into the art world via flattery and liquor, and the production of canvases as arid as their greedy little faces.  Here are boys, of all nations, one step above the pimp.”  (892)

“Come Out the Wilderness” explores an interracial couple.  Ruth is a black woman working in an office and Paul is a white man and painter.  Ruth feels anxious about their relationship, her memories of her ex-boyfriend and Paul’s flakiness about the relationship.  She is convinced of the worse about him.  “He wanted to go.  He was not going to another woman.  He simply wanted to go.”  (909) The core of the story is her musings about her relationships, which tended to be defined by power, ownership, obligation, and service — in other words slavery.  Above and beyond the obvious issue of the legacy of slavery among black women and reality of masters raping enslaved women, should this be a tool to critique relationships more broadly.  Indeed, Ruth’s musings on slavery came when she thinks about her black ex-boyfriend not her current one who is just aloof.  This was in some ways a critique of the most radical voices in the sexual revolution – that relationships tend to be colonial and should be rethought from the ground up.

“Going to Meet the Man” is the last tale in this collection and is set entirely in a bedroom.  The plot consists of a impotent man finally achieving sexual arousal.  What gives this impotent white sheriff an erection is his recollections of the brutal lynching of a black man, which he saw as a boy under the direction of his father who insisted he witness the torture and death of another human being.  The last scene is no less horrifying.  His arousal, awakened by these memories, is tainted with racially-motivated violence.  (I will let you read it yourself.)  Baldwin’s generation not only experienced incredible racially-motivated violence during the context of the Civil Rights Movement and struggles against police violence, but older people had lasting memories of the early 20th century, when violence became one of the key tools to enforce Jim Crow.  Although this is a horrifying window in the mind of a white racist, we take away from Going to Meet the Man the lesson that the Jim Crow-era of racism was something that was lived from  birth until old age, in every aspect of life from the bedroom to the playground to the house of worship to the pub.

Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays, Part Three” (1852-1862)

We come to the final essays of Thoreau’s short life, which focus on his abolitionism, his resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, and his defense of John Brown.

We start with two essays written for Thoreau’s friend Harrison G. O. Blake in 1852, “Love” and “Chastity and Sensuality.”  My impression in these two short essays is that Thoreau sentimentalizes and idealizes love over what he would call more base sensuality.  With marriage, “all lusts or base pleasures must give place to loftier delights.  They who meets as superior beings cannot perform the deeds of inferior ones.”  (329)  Later, “Love and lust are far asunder.  The one is good and the other bad.” (330)  I suppose his belief in a perfect marriage or an ideal love (not corrupted by base lust) is akin to his quest for perfect goodness or bravery.  Perhaps Thoreau is defending his bachelorhood and (likely) virginity.  I found these essays tedious and judgmental.  Love, for him, exists in a transcendent realm and we who dwell in the the more vulgar acts of lust and unfortunately deluded.  He even slips in a near eugenicist argument. “The only excuse for reproduction is improvement.  Nature abhors repetition.  Beasts merely propagate their kind, but the offspring of noble men & women will be superior to themselves, as their aspirations are.  By their fruits ye shall know them.” (332)  He does not define superiority as genetic, of course, yet he comes off as a quite unconventional mid-19th century American intellectual in his idealization of romantic love and his condemnation of sexual pleasure (particularly among the working poor who so many reformers targeted for improvement).

“Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) makes the case that the state of Massachusetts was complicit in the spread of slavery through its acceptance and defense of the Fugitive Slave Law, which required that run-away slaves be returned to their “owners.”  More troubling was that it seemed to put a burden of proof on kidnapped free people to prove that they are not slaves.  In some cases, at least, free men and women were enslaved through the workings of the courts.  Thoreau points out that state agents, judges, proved to be unwilling to stand on the side of justice in interest of defending their position.  It makes Massachusetts a potential state of slaves.  Thoreau is desperately searching for a polity that can deserve his loyalty.  Certainly the Constitution and brazen majority rule will not do.  Neither will the worship of “Mammon” embraced by the institutions (religious, secular, and educational) in the state.  “Show me a free State, and a court of justice, and I will fight for them, if need be.” (344)  As for Massachusetts, Thoreau states that their is enough injustice to warrant revolutionary change.  “My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.” (346)  What this essay gives us is a practical application of “Civil Disobedience”

“Life Without Principle” explores the question of work.  How is it possible to be free, happy, fulfilled, or proud if one works for money or survival.  He fears the revolution has been incomplete.  “Even if we grant that the American had freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still a slave of an economical and moral tyrant.  . . . Do we call this the land of the free?  What is it to be free from King George and continue to be slaves of King Prejudice?  What is it to be born free and not to live free?  What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom?” (363)  We start with the problem that most of the ways that exist of making a living are unsatisfying for most.  Working for others invariably results in a form of theft.  “If the laborers gets no more than his wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself.” (350)  Thoreau, with his radical individualism, likely finds the man cheating himself worse than the employers theft.  In this situation, good work can only come from a type of bribing.   His solution may be utopian, but I think we need this Utopian approach again.  “The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends.  Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for the love of it.” (351)  Ah, but even this is a half-revolution.  Countless employment websites make the same types of claims today.  Finding work one loves to do, without a fundamental restructuring of the economic system of exploitation simply makes that exploitation more palatable to the workers.  I have no doubt that many workers have found work that they love.  Even work that reflects tasks they would engage in even if they were not paid.  Thoreau assumes that these tasks will still be “work.”  We can read “Life Without Principle” as a good diagnosis of the problem, but an incomplete treatment – we need a society that can encourage people to pursue their talents and interests and make it possible to pursue those talents and interests without exploitation.

Thoreau wrote three essays on John Brown in 1859 and 1860: “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” “Martyrdom of John Brown,” and “The Last Days of John Brown.”  It seems that Thoreau may have found his great hero in John Brown, a man capable of transcending social convention in pursuit of moral perfection.  He aptly dispenses with the nonsense about John Brown’s insanity or religious zealotry.  This nonsense still finds its way into writings on John Brown, unfortunately.  While, Thoreau says, the attack on Harper’s Ferry and the hope of starting a slave revolt may have been foolish, it cannot be called insane.  First, the government and slave aristocracy would not have feared him had he been insane.  Second, had it been successful it would not have been deemed the work of a madman.  Third, how could an insane man have attracted such a significant following for his action of “civil disobedience”?  Finally, and most importantly, he was merely pursuing the logical consequences of his perfectly rational moral positions.  More important than the life of John Brown (irredeemably lost anyway) to Thoreau was how he would be remembered.  And Thoreau was certain that Brown would be remembered as being on the right side of history.  On this point, Thoreau was prophetic.  “It seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died.  I never hear of a man named Brown now,–and I hear of them pretty often,–I never head of any particularly brave and earnest man, bu tmy first thought of of John Brown, and what relation he may be to him.  I meet him at every turn.  He is more alive than ever he was.  He has earned immortality.  He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas.  He is no longer working in secret.  He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on the land.” (428)

johnbrown

 

Herman Melville “Typee” Part Two

C. L. R. James wrote: “In Typee [Melville] holds up to admiration the civilization of the Typees and makes the most damaging comparisons with Western civilization.  Melville says that during the weeks he lived among the Typees, no one was ever put on trial for any public offense.  As far as he could see there were no courts of law or equity.  No police.  Yet everything went on in the valley with a perfect harmony and smoothness.  He denounces missionaries, white traders and government officials for degrading and corrupting this ideal civilization, cannibalistic as it was.”  (James, Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, 71).

melville

Most of the second half of the novel Typee amounts to travelogue and ethnography, as Melville tells his readers about the society he lived with for around a month (four months in the time frame of the novel).  There is not much left to tell in respect to plot.  In addition to living among the Typee, Tommo considers leaving at times and attempts to convince the Typee to allow him to leave, but settles in.  When he catches his hosts with three severed heads, Tommo begins to fear for his life, living among cannibals.  Despite resistance and difficulty, Tommo is able to escape by signing onto a whaling vessel.  His adventures will continue in the novel Omoo, where he will take on the name “Typee.”  This novel does have two epilogues.  One examined a British occupation of Hawaii.   The second considered the adventures of Toby after his escape from the Typee.

15270337-marquesas-islands-old-view-tcitchagov-bay--by-unidentified-author-published-on-magasin-pittoresque-p

I want to focus on the world Melville describes.  As I discussed in my last post, he was making a critique of “civilization” by praising the successes of the savages.  He saw the missionaries and whites as a corrupting force.  This theme is even more strongly argued in Omoo.  What is so special about the Typee community?  What can we learn from them?  Perhaps not much, but there remains much that is admirable.  The Typee have achieved a post-scarcity society.  The cultivation of breadfruit and “cocao-nuts” ensured a steady supply of food at the cost of little apparent drudgery.  Abundance of necessities is one half of eliminating scarcity.  The other half is in the elimination of desires.   “In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; — the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.” (149-150)By needed little, the Typee did not need to invest much of their energy into production.  The benefits of this post-scarcity situation overflow on almost every page of the second half of the novel.  Let me just mention two: time and governance.

Time: Industrialization created a world defined by the clock.  One sells their labor by the hour.  Tasks in the day are measured by seconds and minutes.  More and more of our conception of reality is defined by the standardized time-keeping.  Melville describes the opposite process.  The Typee would not have been aware of it, but Tommo, coming from 19th century America would have notice how time became less important.  “Gradually I lost all knowledge of the regular recurrence of the days of the week, and sunk insensibly into that kind of apathy which ensures after some violent outbreak of despair.  My limb suddenly healed, the swelling went down, the pain subsided.” (148)  A simple thought experiment would reveal that given liberation from work, whether through a more egalitarian distribution of necessary work, a reduction in living standards, or the mechanization of labor most people would choose to organize their days in accordance to their desires.  Nonnegotiable schedules would quickly vanish.  An afternoon spent on family, drink, or hobbies would no longer be seen as time wasted, better spent on productive labors.  Clocks might remain, but they would be servants of humanity not the masters.

Governance: The system of government among the Typee is described in chapters 25 and 26.   Melville was impressed with its simplicity and its lack of authority.  Deference was seemingly given willingly by the people and was not forced because the chief has no real say over the affairs of the community.  “During the festival I had not failed to remark the simplicity of manner, the freedom from all restraint, and, to a certain degree, the equality of condition manifested by the natives in general.” (219)  (I cannot help but notice the similar language used by Tocqueville in describing 1830 U.S.A.)  This simplicity was replicated in the marriage system.  Melville describe the use of polyandry and the lack of extended and tedious courtships.  Divorces are common and mostly amicable.  “As nothing stands in the way of a separation, the matrimonial yoke sits easily and lightly, and a Typee wife lives on very pleasant and sociable terms with her husbands.” (226)  I wonder how much of this can be explained by the lack of the interference of property in marriage.  With property comes greater concerns about fidelity, paternity certainty, and, of course, divorces become more complicated.  Often what makes divorce so traumatic for individuals and communities is a direct outgrowth of our atomized, unequal, capitalist society. Who will care for the children?  Who will get to keep the marital assets?  These are questions that did not plague the Typee.  The raising of children was as straightforward and simple as everything else in Typee life.  And with no property to divide up, divorce could not threaten any man or woman’s survival.  If we stopped looking at our relationships through windows of ownership and property, perhaps divorce would be less common.  Adultery is a threat only to those who think love, sex, emotion, happiness, and joy are scarce and marketable commodities.  (Only the one who “paid the price”, i.e. got married, should enjoy those things.)  Conflicts amongst the Typee were rare.  Tommo claimed to have seen none.

“Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity; she has not even her full share of them.  They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength amongst many barbarous people.  The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendships of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass any thing of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe.  If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees?” (238)

Herman Melville, “Typee” Part One

herman-melville-typee-omoo-mardi-hardcover-cover-art

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life evolved from Herman Melville’s experiences in 1841 and 1842 in the South Seas.  It is semi-autobiographical.  This work began the literary career of who I see as the greatest American artist.  If I cannot locate the blogs themes in the work of Melville, I expect I could wrap up this blog as a failure.  While waiting in detention in Ellis Island, C. L. R. James wrote: “What Melville did was to place within the covers of one book [Moby Dick] a presentation of a whole civilization so that any ordinary human being today can read it in a few days and grasp the essentials of the world he lived in.  To do this a man must contain within his single self, at one and the same time, the whole history of the past, the most significant experiences of the world around him, and a clear vision of the future.  Of all this he creates an ordered whole.  No philosopher, statesman, scientist or soldier exceeds him in creative effort.” (James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, 115)

 

I will work through Melville’s work with a degree of humility and patience, both to the master and the many dozens of scholars who understand his words better than me.  I will, of course, focus my energies on what Melville has to say about freedom, empire, community, solidarity, progress, the environment, democracy and other questions of interest in anarchists.

Typee tells the story of sailor deserting from his ship with a friend, his struggle for survival on the island, his discovery of a native community (which he feared was the “cannibal” Typee), the society, culture, economy, and politics of the people he met, and his return to European and American “civilization” represented by the ship.  It parallels, broadly, experiences Melville himself went through while on a whaling voyage.

image-88

To start, the ship is Tommo’s (the narrator is named Tom but identified as Tommo by the Typee) connection to the West.  It has a degree of security and comfort for him.  Despite choosing to flee the ship, for a long time he remained fearful of the “cannibal” Typee.  He remains anxious throughout his time with the Typee.  This anxiety was symbolized in his aching leg, which seemed to heal as he got closer to assimilation and pained him during his bouts with anxiety and fear.  The ship reflected a world of inequality and want.  “We left both law and equity on the other side of the Cape; and unfortunately, with a very few exceptions, our crew was composed of a parcel of dastardly and mean-spirited wretches, divided among themselves, and only united in enduring without resistance the unmitigated tyranny of the captain.” (31)  Stories of whaling ships remaining in the Pacific for years despite low provisions helped convince Tom to flee with his companion Toby.

The ship is also a zone for the imperial domination of the Pacific islands, a theme Melville often returns to.  He was critical of French imperialism in the Pacific, with the degradation of the lives of islanders, and the tendency of Europeans and Americans to paint themselves as civilized and the Islanders as “savages.”  The ship, was the initial hammer of empire.  Much of the early part of the book engages these themes of desperation and want on the ship and the colonial conquest.  When discussing the arrival of women to the ship, he critiqued the tendency of Westerners to take advantage of their innocence.  “The grossest licentiousness and the most shameful inebriety prevailed, with occasional and but short-lived interruptions.  . . . Unsophisticated and confiding, they are easily led into every vice, and humanity weeps over the ruin thus remorselessly inflicted upon them by their Europeans civilizers.” (25)  Now, I tend to think that this over-emphasizes the naivety of Pacific island women, it does suggest the hypocrisy of empire – the bringing of “civilization” covering up the use of violence, manipulation, or corruption.  Melville reserves his harshest critiques of the French, who he describes as “insolent” and “arrogant.”  He also praised at times the ability of the Typee to resist full domination by the French.

The entire narrative is just one of many examples in the American tradition of people choosing to escape European and American settler colonialism for the relative equality and freedom of “hidden places.”  Starting with one of the first colonies in North America at Roanoke, people have fled capitalism, monarchical hierarchies, and slavery. Some joined Indian tribes.  Slaves fled and formed the “maroon communities.”  Sailors fled in other ways.  By fleeing at the right moment they could await the arrival of new ships to sign on with.  These ships may be on the way home, better provisioned, or just have a new captain.  Many sailors fled simply to escape personal conflicts with officers.  Armed resistance and mutiny were only a last resort.  It seems to me one explanation for the lack of armed resistance to capitalism in American history is that so many people found alternative ways to resist, often by opting out.  This is what Melville did and it is what he has Tom and Toby attempt.  Better to be free and starving and on the run from cannibals than to be degraded into submission by the authoritarian structure of the whaling ship.

Is “opting out” still an option for us.  We lack the wild places to flee too, but there are other ways people continue to opt out of the system.  Maybe many of these options are inauthentic.  Someone can drop out of school but still take a job at Wal-mart.  But remember, Melville was not fully authentic either.  He got his one month of peace from the whaling ship before returning.  (He gives Tom four months in the novel.)  In the same way, slaves who ran away often had to return after a brief respite.  True escape was difficult then and impossible now.  I suggest we not dwell on purity and focus on the power of “opting out” by cultivating options for people looking for escape  from the state and capital, the moral law and religion.  Maybe the Temporary Autonomous Zone is all we can ask for.

In Chapter 17, Melville makes his most full critique of the concept of civilization.  He does this by harnessing different values.  Certainly, Melville was romanticizing the Pacific islanders a bit, but I reckon the broad strokes are correct.  The Typee were more free and more happy than the Westerners.  “In this secluded abode of happiness there were no cross old women, no cruel step-dames, no withered spinsters, no lovesick maidens, no sour old bachelors, no inattentive husbands, no melancholy young men, no blubbering youngsters and no squalling brats.  All was mirth, fun, and high good humor.” (151-152)  Much of this happiness evolved from their post-scarcity situation.  Work was limited and breadfruit readily available.  For a sailor like Melville, this must have been a strong contrast to the daily violence and drudgery of work on the sailing ship.

This has a strong parallel with Denis Diderot’s “Supplement au voyage de Bougainville.”  The Bougainville voyages of the later 18th century, explored the South Seas for the French and led to encounters with Tahiti.  In his “Supplement” Diderot fictionalized this encounter between a Christian and a Taihitian man.  The Christian initially offended the man by refusing to sleep with his daughter.  The discussion that follows from this is a perfect example of the proper way to deal with cultural differences.  In simple language, both men express the reasons for their belief, but for the reader, the Taihitian cannot but look the more mature and wise.  That he argued for the anathema (for Europeans) of non-monogamy, makes the clarity and persuasiveness of his position all the more striking.   His argument rests on the hypocrisy of a civilization based on control, institutional order, unchanging rules, and inflexible customs running contrary to human nature is more oppressive than a civilization based on our natural freedoms and desires.

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Short Friday and Other Stories”: Singer on Sex

This third collection of Singer’s short stories collected by The Library of America was published in English in 1964.  Sex is a powerful theme in many of Singer’s stories.  One one end, it is a normal, expected, and celebrated part of life for married couples.  On the other end, it is the window to temptation and the commonly-used weapon of demons to possess the souls of Jewish men and women.  I am here making a humble effort to reflect on what we can learn about sex from Singer’s dilemma.  It is quite clear to me that Singer is a strong moral conservative.  As I wrote about in the earlier postings, Singer seems to reflect the conservatism of the rural moral economy.  His stories suggest a fear of outsiders, the importance of remaining uncorrupted by sin, capitalism, and change.  Often his heroes are the rabbis to stick to their spiritual orientations despite a changing or besieged world.

50576

In “Taibele and her Demon” an abandoned woman tells her friends the story of a demon who visits a woman and seduces her and lives with her as “man and wife.”  A man in the community, a teachers assistant, her the story and visits Taibele disguised as “Hurmizah” a demon.  He tells her that he will comes twice a week.  She begins to relish the encounters which are not only sexually satisfying but entertaining, as “Hurmizah” tells her stories of the demonic world.  “Thus Hurmizah described his wives, and told Taibele how he disported himself with them, playing tag over roofs and engaging in all sorts of pranks.  Ordinarily, a woman is jealous when a man consorts with other women, but how can a human be jealous of a female devil?  Quite the contrary.  Hurmizah’s tales amused Taibele, and she was always playing him with questions.” (338)  The relationship starts to have broader effects.  The teacher’s assistant remains unmarried despite being a widower.  (Taibele is abandoned herself and the demonic affair takes on the character of a second marriage for both).  While on one level the story works as a playful celebration of sexual freedom and rule-breaking  (Does she really think he is a demon or does it become an excuse to sustain a fulfilling affair?)  The story is also a warning against these transgressions.  The teacher’s assistant career suffers as rumors spread that he is becoming a werewolf.  In fact, he was becoming sicker due to his excessive late-night rendezvous.  While Taibele begins to become fond of the demonic world.  “Taibele knew that it was sinful to pray for devils, that one must curse them and blot them from memory; yet she prayed to God for Hurmizah.  She cried out in anguish: ‘There are so many devils, let there be one more.'” (342)  Eventually, Hurmizah stops coming, for the teacher’s assistant died and Taibele’s health rapidly deteriorated.

Sexual transgression is explored in “Blood” as well, but here it is overshadowed by the passion of a man for the indiscriminate slaughter of animals.  To story begins as an affair between a married woman Risha and a widower butcher Reuben.  The story begins “The cabalists know that the passion for blood and the passion for flesh have the same origin, and this is the reason ‘Thou shall not kill’ is followed by ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.'” (353)  Risha is almost immediately attracted to the honesty of Reuben’s brutality and indifference to the victims of his profession.  “If someone has to eat meat, someone has to do the slaughtering.” (356) She hires him as a private ritual slaughterer for her family’s estate.  Under a pretext, she returns to Reuben.  Their erotic encounter is mixed with the imagery of slaughter.  “He forced Risha down on his beach-bed and she, thrice married, had never before felt desire as great as on that day.  Thought she called him murderer, robber, highwayman, and reproached him for bringing shame to an honest woman, yet at the same time she kissed him, fondled him, and responded to his masculine whims.  In their amorous play, she asked him to slaughter her.  Taking her head, he bent it back and fiddled with his finger across her throat.  When Risha finally arose, she said to Reuben: ‘You have certainly murdered me that time.'” (358)  She finally got Reuben on the estate by opening a butcher shop, selling low-cost meat.  She helped Reuben work as a slaughter and seamlessly connected those acts with her sexual indiscretion.  They are aroused by the slaughter and often has sex near the dead and dying animals.  “One transgression begets another.  One day Satan, the father of all lust and cunning, tempted Risha to take a hand in slaughtering.”  From this point Risha began to expand her crimes by slaughtering meat herself instead of the kosher-slaughter Rueben.  “She got so much satisfaction from deceiving the community that this soon became as powerful a passion with her as lechery and cruelty.” (361)  This made her rich, especially since she commonly deceived her customers.  “The steaming blood gurgled and flowed.  While the beasts were bleeding, Risha threw off all her clothes and stretched out naked on a pile of straw.  Reuben came to her and they were so fat their bodies could barely join.  They puffed and panted.  Their wheezing mixed with the death rattles of the animals and made an unearthly noise.” (363)  This event was witnessed by a spy of the now unemployed butchers and exposes all of Risha and Rueben’s sins.  When confronted she converted and continued her life as a non-kosher butcher.  She did this only after almost immediately adopted all the worst anti-Semitic claims of the local Gentiles. She dies in the end, having become a “werewolf.”  She had taken to the woods and turned into a “carnivorous animal lurking about at night and attacking people.”  Rueben meanwhile had become a vegetarian.

Singer, a vegetarian who had disgust for the slaughter of animals connected this with adultery and sexual indiscretion.  Again, we find the dangerous association of sexuality with decadence, sin, and crime.

Well, how do you feel about transgression?  Where is the line between resistance to cultural norms, hierarchies, tradition, and patriarchal expectations on monogamy?  When does resistance to consumer culture cross into tyrannical Puritanism?  What is the role of sexual and moral transgression (and in this I suppose we could include meat-eating as vegetarianism/veganism often is often quite Puritanical in practice – based on self-restraint, moral mandates, and denial) in resistance to capitalism?