May 2, 2008

After watching numerous Elvis Presley clips on YouTube, I’m now able to state categorically that the best Elvis clip is this version of “Unchained Melody.”

In my book of aphorisms, I said that the family of a genius is often mentally unstable. I now learn that Whitman’s family exemplifies this; several of Whitman’s siblings were deranged. Some scholars say that Whitman frequently rode the omnibus along Broadway because he wanted to escape the bedlam that reigned at home.

I learned something else from the Whitman documentary: Whitman was more overtly homosexual than I had thought; he frequented a gay bar called Pfaff’s, and had a relationship with a man (Fred Vaughn) that lasted for two or three years. His “Calamus Poems” are homoerotic, and scandalized some readers; Thoreau’s sister didn’t want any mention of Whitman at her brother’s funeral.

The Whitman documentary can be viewed online. In the last issue, I quoted Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”; this poem is read and discussed in the documentary (click here).

1. Hemingway’s Grinder

In 1924, when Hemingway was 25, Joseph Conrad died (at the age of 66), and Hemingway published an obituary in a periodical called transatlantic. “If I knew,” wrote Hemingway, “that by grinding Mr. Eliot into a fine dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear.... I would leave for London tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.”1

Notice the lack of commas; Hemingway’s generation had an aversion for commas. As for the content of Hemingway’s remark, it’s a violent image, but striking and memorable, and it illustrates Hemingway’s views of both Conrad and Eliot. In 1950, Hemingway described Eliot as “a damned good poet and a fair critic; but he can kiss my ass as a man and he never hit the ball out of the infield in his life.”2

Eliot must have been aware of Hemingway’s jibes, and one might expect him to respond in kind. In fact, Eliot praised Hemingway: “Mr. Hemingway is a writer for whom I have considerable respect; he seems to me to tell the truth about his own feelings at the moment when they exist.”3 Eliot was a fan of Fitzgerald, a bigger fan of Hemingway.

Among contemporary writers, one of Hemingway’s favorites was Isak Dinesen, who wrote about the African plains of which Hemingway was fond. When he was given the Nobel Prize, Hemingway said he would have preferred to see the prize go to “that beautiful writer, Isak Dinesen.”

In the last issue, I recommended a Hemingway documentary. I now learn that the person who made the Hemingway documentary, DeWitt Sage, also made a Fitzgerald documentary, and the Fitzgerald documentary so impressed Hemingway’s heirs that they urged Sage to make a Hemingway documentary.

2. Distant Wisdom

“No man is a prophet in his own country.” Does mankind have an irrational prejudice against those near them, against proximate prophets? Or is there some wisdom in this “prejudice”? Is it possible that people from far away really do bring new ideas, good ideas? Wasn’t Zen brought to the West from far away (Congress of World Religions, Chicago, 1893)? Wasn’t the Hermetic worldview brought to Western Europe from far away, from Constantinople (Council of Florence, 1439)?

In the late 1800s, Western Europeans sometimes saw America as a faraway source of wisdom. Whitman especially made a deep impression on writers like E. M. Forster and Bram Stoker; Whitman was “a breath of fresh air.” In Dracula, Stoker depicted an American with a healthy, open-minded attitude. In Dracula, all the sources of good ideas are foreign. Is it possible that wisdom really does come from far away? Does the prejudice against proximate prophets contain a kernel of truth?

3. Jung

Three indications that Jung was a great intellectual:

  1. Early in his career, when he was a rising academic, Jung resigned his academic position, believing that he couldn’t transmit knowledge unless he possessed knowledge.4 At that time in his life, he was unsure what was in his unconscious, what his unconscious was trying to tell him. In short, he didn’t know himself, so he chose to explore himself rather than pursue the academic career that lay before him. He chose spiritual growth, spiritual wisdom, rather than social and economic advancement.
  2. When his unconscious produced an image that puzzled him, Jung felt that he must understand that image, or kill himself.5 To stake one’s life in this fashion is the ultimate sign of commitment. When Warren Buffett was 13, he said he would make a million dollars by age 30, or jump off the tallest building in Omaha. Jung had the same sort of commitment, but he wasn’t committed to getting rich, he was committed to self-knowledge.
  3. Despite his many differences with the Freudian school, Jung knew that posterity wouldn’t reject Freud’s conclusions, and accept his own. He understood intellectual history, he understood that later thinkers would take something from him, and something from Freud. Jung was able to detach himself from his own work, and see it in perspective. I myself have taken something from Freud, something from Jung.

4. Leo Strauss and His Disciples

In an earlier issue, I described how, in the fall of 2005, I attended some lectures at Harvard by Bill Kristol, and met with him several times. In the spring of 2006, I attended the first meeting of a seminar that Kristol and Mansfield were teaching together, a seminar that dealt with various political thinkers, especially Leo Strauss. The seminar paid special attention to Strauss’s book, Natural Right and History.

There were around 30 people at that first meeting. Perhaps 3 of those people were “old folks” like myself, the rest were undergrads or graduate students. After some preliminary remarks, Mansfield asked if anyone had any questions/comments/disputes. I said that Strauss often spoke of philosophy — the origin of philosophy, the goal of philosophy, etc. — and assumed that Greek philosophy is the only philosophy, as if Eastern philosophy didn’t exist. I asked what Strauss thought of Eastern philosophy. I observed that Thoreau was more interested in Eastern philosophy than Western philosophy.

Mansfield looked at Kristol. Kristol looked at Mansfield. Neither seemed to want to respond to me, perhaps because Eastern philosophy was “foreign ground” to both of them. Finally Mansfield broke the silence, and said that he had gone to Chicago to attend one of Strauss’s classes, and he had heard someone ask the same question of Strauss himself. Strauss answered that he knew nothing about Eastern philosophy.

Mansfield, however, wasn’t content with a plea of ignorance. He launched a vigorous attack on Eastern philosophy, saying that it wasn’t real philosophy. Though Mansfield’s attack was vigorous, it wasn’t delivered in a heated manner; Mansfield spoke calmly, even casually. I didn’t feel that he wanted to discuss the subject further, and I didn’t feel that an interloper like myself should dominate the discussion, so I said nothing more during the two-hour seminar. During most of the seminar, Mansfield held forth; Kristol struggled to get a word in edge-wise.

I attended only the first meeting of the seminar. For me, the chief value of the seminar was that it inspired me to read the opening section of Strauss’s Natural Right and History. It’s a thorny and obscure book — I don’t recommend it — but it taught me about the rational approach to philosophy. It struck me that this was the exact opposite of my approach, and it helped me to understand my own approach better. It inspired me to write my “manifesto,” which stresses the opposition between rational and non-rational philosophy.

As I read Strauss’s book, I noticed that he opposes the view that morality is only valid for a certain historical period, and every period has its own morality — that is, Strauss opposes the historical argument against morality, opposes historicism. But this is only one part of Nietzsche’s argument against morality, and not the most important part. Nietzsche makes a psychological argument against morality, he argues that morality is decadent, that it turns against life, that it represents a death instinct. Strauss doesn’t seem to understand this argument, or answer it, or even be aware of it.

Strauss opposed Max Weber’s view that social science should be value-free. Strauss said that the ancient Greeks discussed values in their political writing; the Greeks spoke of the good life, the good man, etc. Strauss wanted to restore the ancient tradition. Here Strauss reminds me of my old favorite, John Ruskin. Ruskin opposed the value-free economics of his day; Ruskin insisted that if economic theories don’t take account of quality-of-life, they’re meaningless. “There is no wealth but Life,” Ruskin insisted. I agree with Strauss that social science shouldn’t try to be value-free, and I think Ruskin would agree with Strauss, too.

What is the future of Western civilization? According to Weber, there will either be a spiritual renewal, with “wholly new prophets or a powerful renaissance of old thoughts and ideals,” or there will be “mechanized petrifaction... specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.” Weber is looking ahead, like a weather-man, and saying, “it may be sunny, it may be rainy.”

Strauss manages to completely mis-interpret this passage.6 Strauss points to this passage as a proof of Weber’s nihilism, insisting that because Weber abandons value-judgments, he can’t make a choice between the two alternatives, between the sunny future and the dark future. As if this were a matter of choice! As if a weather-man were offering us alternatives, and asking us to choose one! True, our actions could have an effect on the future of civilization, our actions could contribute to a “renaissance of old thoughts,” etc. True, we may have more effect on the future of civilization than on the weather. But how can Strauss blame Weber for not “choosing” the future of civilization? Isn’t it clear from Weber’s language which future he prefers?

Is it just a coincidence that many Straussians advocated deposing Saddam long before the invasion of Iraq? Was Robert Kagan joking when he said, “Straussianism would prove to be the main cause of the Iraq war”?7 One of the chief principles of Eastern philosophy is non-doing, wu wei; wu wei is sometimes translated as “doing without doing” or “effortless action.” Basketball players have an expression that means the same thing as wu wei; basketball players say “don’t force it, let the game come to you.” One argument against the Iraq War is that we “forced” it, instead of following the principle of wu wei. Is it a coincidence that the strongest supporters of the Iraq War were people who ignored Eastern philosophy? Would American policy have been different if the Bush administration respected Alan Watts as much as Leo Strauss?

Straussians are opposed to atheism, secularism, etc. but they themselves have, at most, a lukewarm religiosity. As I said (quoting Himmelfarb) in an earlier issue, “Strauss was not a believing Jew.... Strauss had stopped going to the synagogue.” As for Mansfield, he seems to be even less religious than Strauss. Straussians have no emotional feeling for religion, or intellectual respect for religion. They make no attempt to prove old religious dogmas, and they make no attempt to develop new approaches to religion. Yet they think it’s dangerous to reject traditional monotheism completely. In short, Straussians have nothing to offer with respect to religion, and this may be one reason that Straussian thinking has no appeal outside academia.

Strauss laments the split between science and philosophy, the split between a science that sees no goals in nature (a non-teleological science) and a philosophy that insists man must have a goal, a telos. Strauss laments that, in modern times, science and philosophy have moved apart, and we’ve lost the “comprehensive view of Aristotle.”8

The Philosophy of Today, however, has re-connected science and philosophy, and regained the comprehensive view. We believe that man has an innate tendency toward spiritual growth and psychic balance — not a goal that is imposed from above by reason, but a goal that wells up inside him, from his own soul, his own unconscious. We believe that the energies and occult powers in man also pervade the rest of the universe — including even subatomic particles. We see nature and man as part of one organic whole, a universe that is inter-connected, and full of energy, life, mystery.

5. Von Franz

Still reading Individuation in Fairy Tales, by Marie-Louise von Franz. (I first discussed this book almost a year ago.) As usual, I’m astonished by the wealth of ideas in von Franz, and astonished at how she speaks to my own most personal experience. But it isn’t an easy book to read: it’s sometimes obscure, it isn’t a polished literary work, I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly, though I don’t regret reading it myself. (When our book group discussed a von Franz book, I wrote, “It wasn’t a popular choice. Nobody liked it much, and one person roundly criticized it.”)

Von Franz often quotes her mentor, Jung. She quotes Jung’s remark that religion was at first a guide of instinct, intimately related to instinct, not opposed to instinct. Periodically, however, religion develops into the enemy of instinct (as in medieval Christianity). This is an unhealthy situation, but a necessary part of psychic evolution, a necessary part of “the increasing extension and differentiation of consciousness.”9 Among primitive people, spirituality and instinct are in harmony; among the Kalahari Bushmen, for example, “their hunting, their sex life, their fight for survival, their spiritual life, and their storytelling and dancing are absolutely one living unit.”10

According to Jung, man has a natural tendency to seek spiritual growth, to seek “individuation”; Jung regarded this as “the strongest urge in man.”11

6. Thomas Wolfe

About four years ago, I discussed Thomas Wolfe’s novel, Look Homeward, Angel. I’d like to return to that novel, and finish that discussion.

The protagonist, Eugene Gant, represents the author himself, as Proust’s narrator represents Proust himself; Look Homeward, Angel is an autobiographical novel. When Eugene goes to college, he endures lots of ridicule from his classmates:

Eugene’s first year at the university was filled for him with loneliness, pain, and failure. Within three weeks of his matriculation, he had been made the dupe of a half-dozen classic jokes.... As he walked across the campus, he heard his name called mockingly.... He had no friends.... He was alone.12

But after he visits a brothel, a change comes over him. He becomes tough, bold, assertive; this seems to be a key moment in Wolfe’s life. Here is Wolfe’s description of the new Eugene:

He plunged recklessly through the lively crowds, looking boldly but without insolence at the women and young girls.... He felt released — beyond the last hedge of desperation.... He was not now afraid.... He looked among the crowds [seeking] that which he might desire and take. He went back to the university sealed up against the taunts of the young men: in the hot green Pullman they pressed about him with thronging jibe, but they fell back sharply, as fiercely he met them.13

The new Eugene begins to enjoy college life, and participate in it actively:

He was happier than he had ever been in his life, and more careless.... Every one knew him at sight: every one called him by name, and spoke to him kindly. He was not disliked.... He began to join. He joined everything. He had never “belonged” to any group before, but now all groups were beckoning him.... He was initiated into literary fraternities, dramatic fraternities, theatrical fraternities.14

Eugene boldly declares his independence from his parents, telling his mother, “I have done an apprenticeship here with you for seventeen years, but it is coming to an end. I know now that I shall escape... I am no longer afraid of you.”15 Wolfe did indeed “escape”; he went away to college, then further away to graduate school, then to Europe, and he rarely went back home. His boldness and assertiveness probably helped him to achieve success — considerable success at a young age.

Was his boldness related to his early death — related to the fact that time, for him, was short? There are hints in Look Homeward, Angel that Wolfe anticipated his early death. Eugene tells his girlfriend that he’ll never forget her; “I won’t live long enough.”16 When Eugene’s mother complains about her health, he says, “You’ll be here when the rest of us are rotten.” In fact, Wolfe’s mother did outlive him.

Wolfe was hungry for life, for experience. “It was not his quality as a romantic to escape out of life, but into it....17 He was devoured by a vast strange hunger for life.”18 He prowls the streets at night, wondering what’s happening in the houses he passes, even ringing doorbells and talking to strangers, telling them tall tales about himself.

Wolfe paints a vivid picture of how young Americans experienced World War I. While still in high school, Wolfe was consumed by war fever:

All through that waning summer, Eugene shuttled frantically from the school to Dixieland [i.e., his mother’s inn], unable, in the delirium of promised glory, to curb his prancing limbs. He devoured every scrap of news.19

Eugene’s college classmates are eager to go to war:

The war brought them no sorrow: it was a pageant which might, they felt, pluck them instantly into glory.... War is not death to young men; war is life.... The age of myth and miracle had come upon the world again. All things were possible.20

7. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 81

The first word of the sonnet (“Or”) should be read as “Either”.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten.
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombèd in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’erread;
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
    You still shall live — such virtue hath my pen —
    Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Line 3 means, “death cannot take your memory from the world.” In line 5, “from hence” means “henceforth.”

This sonnet deals with the familiar theme of the beloved’s immortality, the poetry’s immortality — the poetry immortalizing the beloved. But it also deals with another theme: the poet’s belief that he himself isn’t immortal, he’ll die and be forgotten. How can the poetry live forever while the poet is forgotten? This is difficult to explain if the poet is writing under his own name, but it makes perfect sense if the poet is writing under a pseudonym, concealing his identity. Thus, Sonnet 81 is a favorite with Oxfordians, and they often quote line 6: “I, once gone, to all the world must die.”

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. Quoted in Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time, by Earl H. Rovit and Arthur Waldhorn. transatlantic (or, The Transatlantic Review) was founded by Ford Madox Ford, and shouldn’t be confused with Transatlantic Review, which was edited by Joseph McCrindle, and published between 1959 and 1977. back
2. ibid back
3. ibid back
4. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ch. 6, p. 193 back
5. On December 18, 1913, Jung had a dream: “I heard Siegfried’s horn sounding over the mountains and I knew that we had to kill him.... When I awoke from the dream, I turned it over in my mind, but was unable to understand it. I tried therefore to fall asleep again, but a voice within me said, ‘You must understand the dream, and must do so at once!’ The inner urgency mounted until the terrible moment came when the voice said, ‘If you do not understand the dream, you must shoot yourself!’ In the drawer of my night table lay a loaded revolver, and I became frightened. Then I began pondering once again, and suddenly the meaning of the dream dawned on me. ‘Why, that is the problem that is being played out in the world.’ Siegfried, I thought, represents what the Germans want to achieve, heroically to impose their will, have their own way. ‘Where there is a will there is a way!’ I had wanted to do the same. But now that was no longer possible. The dream showed that the attitude embodied by Siegfried, the hero, no longer suited me. therefore it had to be killed.” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ch. 6, p. 180) Notice how Jung rejects the strong-willed attitude, rejects “Where there is a will there is a way!” This was a guiding principle for many Western writers — Kierkegaard, for example — so Jung’s rejection of it is a significant departure from The Western Way. back
6. Ch. 2, p. 42 back
7. Weekly Standard, 02/06/2006, Volume 011, Issue 20 back
8. Introduction, page 8 back
9. Jung’s words, ch. 2, p. 143 back
10. ibid back
11. Ch. 2, p. 136 back
12. Ch. 28, p. 328 back
13. Ch. 29, p. 347 back
14. Ch. 32, p. 407 back
15. Ch. 32, p. 420 back
16. Ch. 30, p. 380 back
17. Ch. 38, p. 491 back
18. Ch. 38, p. 498 back
19. Ch. 25, p. 289 back
20. Ch. 33, p. 424 back