Sunday, November 11, 2018

Fascist complexities

A fundamental question, which admits of no easy answer, is this. Is fascism some sort of unified phenomenon - a genus with many national components or species - or is it a much looser amalgam, best studied only in separate contexts? 
Clearly this issue pertains to outlier manifestations, such as the Peronist movement in Argentina. And it also arises at the opposite pole with regard to the egregious German phenomenon, Nazism, which may rank either as essentially the intensification of the qualities of the overall trend, or something sui generis - basically internal in origin - stemming, most of all, from the indigenous Völkisch movement. 
To be sure, that movement may be regarded as the Germanic inflection of a broader trend, with a romantic focus on folklore and the "organic", i.e., a "naturally grown community” characterized by a mystical one-body entity (Volkskörper) ostensibly uniting the entire population. This xenophobic trend thrived in Germany and Austria during the period running from the late 19th century up until the Nazi era
Even if one adopts the diversity approach to fascisms, there are affinities. For its part, the Germanic Völkisch trend may rank as a version of populism, which certainly has links with socialism. 
The similarities and contrasts of symbolism with Mussolini’s foundational movement are revealing: the fasces were an ancient Roman symbol, while the swastika ostensibly has roots much earlier in Indo-Germanic antiquity. Both countries, Italy and Germany, deployed mass gatherings of followers, together with the pageantry associated with them.  The role of the Führer was modeled on that of the Duce.
And so forth. Unfortunately, the discussion - is it one thing or several? - will never end.

Monday, October 29, 2018


I spent a number of years in the disagreeable task of documenting homophobia, concluding that because of its multiple strands it remained hard to extirpate. I laid out these conclusions in my book The Homophobic Mind. It occurred to me that a similar approach could be useful in analyzing another noxious hydra head: Anti-Semitism. 
As with homophobia, it may be best to turn first to the bearers of the virus themselves. A useful start in this approach can be found in an old screed - reprinted recently in France - called La France Juive (1886) by Edouard Drumont. The book expounded three strands of antisemitism. One was pseudo-racial, positing an opposition between non-Jewish ”Aryans” and Jewish ”Semites.” At best, the terms are linguistic not racial, and their polemical use is now crippled by the fact that linguistically Arab Muslims are Semites. Another strand was economic. Drumont argued that finance and capitalism were controlled by the Jews. A third factor was religious, referencing the Jews' supposed complicity in the death of Jesus. 
Today, at least three more elements may be adduced. First is the emergence of neo-fascist groups on the far right in Europe, chiming in with a more general dislike of immigrants. Secondly, for its part the far left is given to denouncing the state of Israel in ostensible support of the Palestinian cause. Finally, many Anti-Semitic outrages in Europe are perpetrated by Muslims, a factor that tends to be obscured by those who are fearful of being charged with Islamophobia.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Symbolic values?

So. While I was brought up with no religious affiliation, in my late teens I flirted with with the idea of converting to Catholiicism, a common trend in those days.  Luckily, I averted this mistake but came, for a time, to think that this religion and particularly the Bible harbored symbolic truths.

It is not east to recapture a mindset from long ago, but I must try. 

In a nutshell, what is the symbolic harvest in question? First is the idea that any historical event or person may be studied in both the literal sense (just the facts!) and one or more allegorical senses, The latter approach may be easily abused, but interpretation of literature and art require it at some level. 

Then there is the idea that history (or histories) is not just one damned thing after another, but exhibits certain constants. To be sure, adopting the Christian view of providential history means acquiescing in the kidnapping of the Hebrew Bible, which certainly did not originate as some sort of extended prologue to the New Testament. 
Per contra, some “lessons” seem less than edifying. With all his eloquence Kirkegaard does not make the Sacrifice of Isaac - odious even though finally averted - an adequate support for his pet notion of the Leap of Faith. There is nothing exemplary about the sorry episode of Lot and his Daughters. And so forth.

Sunday, October 07, 2018


The present contentious situation in this country is one of the worst I can remember. Since I have been around a long time now, this is saying something, 
Yet there is a theory, going back to the 19th century, that American history witnesses an oscillation of two successive principles: strife vs. harmony. The time of the War of 1812 was a bitterly contentious one. 
Yet things changed, for the succeeding Era of Good Feelings reflected a renewed sense of national purpose and a desire for unity among Americans. The era saw the collapse of the Federalist Party and an end to the bitter partisan disputes between it and the dominant Democratic-Republican Party. President James Monroe strove to downplay partisan affiliation in making his nominations, with the ultimate goal of national unity. 
So if this pattern is still valid it is useless now to demand a return to civility; it will come when it comes.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Gender switching In Shakespeare

An issue that has intrigued me for some time is gender switching in Shakespeare’s plays. As everyone knows, since women could not appear on the Elizabethan stage, the female roles were played by adolescent boy actors. An additional complication occurred when the male playing a woman switched back to a male: the so-called double-disguise gambit. 
Of the several examples possibly the most interesting is Viola aka Cesario in Twelfth Night. Her cross dressing enables Viola to fulfill several male roles, such as acting as a messenger between Orsino and Olivia, as well as serving as Orsino's confidant. She does not, however, use her disguise to enable her to intervene directly in the plot (unlike other Shakespearean heroines such as Rosalind in As You Like It and Portia in The Merchant of Venice), remaining someone who simply allows “time" to untangle the plot. 
Viola's persistence in transvestism until her betrothal in the final scene of the play has fostered a discussion of the possibly homoerotic relationship between Viola and Orsino.
Having a male actor play Viola enhanced the impression of androgyny and sexual ambiguity. In keeping with today’s concerns some modern scholars believe that Twelfth Night, with the added confusion of male actors and Viola's deception, addresses gender issues with particular urgency They also hold, more dubiously, that the depiction of gender in Twelfth Night reflects the era's pseudo-scientific theory that females are simply imperfect males.
Famously, Judith Butler once held that sexual orientation was highly malleable in the way that on arising each morning one decides what clothes to wear. The attraction of further exploring this theme is its contemporary nature. For me, though, that is a signal that caution is required.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Observations on French literature

Some notes on why French literature is important. Let us start with the Middle Ages, oddly omitted from one recent "comprehensive" history. As with most nations it begins with an epic, the Chanson de Roland. Yet there are other epics, the most resonant being the Arthurian cycle, imitated in other national literatures. The era sees the emergence of vernacular drama. Also, the first secular lyric poetry in Europe, the Troubadours (though technically this is written in Occitan). One way or another, most people are acquainted with the searing poetry of Franc,ois Villon. Marco Polo chose to write In French, as did a host of writers in Norman England. 

Continuing my rapid survey of French literature, I turn to the sixteenth century. Like all major literatures, that of France was receptive, as appropriate, to foreign influence. As Italy was the homeland of the Renaissance, so it supplied a number of significant features. In lyric poetry the foremost contribution was the sonnet. Around Ronsard (1524–1585), Joachim du Bellay (1522–1560) and Jean Antoine de Baïf (1532–1589), there formed a group of radical young poets (generally known today as La Pléiade), who began producing, among other forms of verse, Petrarchan sonnet cycles (centering around an amorous encounter or an idealized woman). They also introduced many allusions to classical mythology stemming from the new humanist emphasis on careful study of the Ancient Greek and Latin authors.
Orientation along these lines was afforded by Du Bellay's manifesto, the "Defense and Illustration of the French Language" (1549), which maintained that French (like the Tuscan of Petrarch and Dante) was a worthy vehicle for literary expression. In addition it promulgated a program of linguistic and literary production (including the imitation of Latin and Greek models and purification of vocabulary).
Classical allusions also abound in the Essays of Montaigne, though arguably he introduced a new genre, the free-wheeling essay.
While his endeavor is sometimes termed Menippean satire, the unique works of Rabelais, concerning Gargantua and Pantagruel, seem to derive almost entirely from indigenous popular sources. They have given rise to an adjective, Rabelaisian.

Continuing our itinerary, the French 18th century was dominated by the giants of the Enlightenment, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau, who require no embroidery from me. It also saw the rise of oppositional fiction, such as Dangerous Liaisons of 1782 by Pierre Chodelos de Laclos, an epistolatory novel several times filmed in recent years. Possibly the most important development, though not always recognized as such, was the clandestine literature, which I have discussed elsewhere in “French Erotic Writings of the 18th Century.

More on this theme later.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The curse of math

My iconoclastic theory of the day. 

We must rid ourselves of mathematics, a form of mind control imposed on us by the white patriarchy. Look for example, at our use of ten as a base. It represents the ten fingers of the oppressor. A few cultures such as the French with their quatre-vingts have preserved relics of a more sensible system of twenty. Let's allow the toes to participate as well. Or why not just two constituents as in that eternal font of wisdom, the binary I Ching? 

As for zero, it must go, as it has been imposed on us by an odious Aryan culture, that of ancient India, home of the Aryans, who also gave us the swastika. (Indian friends, don't be alarmed; I don't really mean it.)

A friend offers the following useful addition:  1 should also be banned, as that arrogant numeral signifies individualism, a solitary being apart from the collective. 1 represents selfishness, hoarding. The 1% - need I say more? 

As for 2, it represents the patriarchal monogamy; as such it must join 1 and 0 in the dustbin of history. 3 is the first politically correct number