Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: History

Confusion of Origins: Notes on Historical Approaches to Puritanism

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What makes a writer attach themselves to a subject, particularly a historical subject? Is it a way to frame contemporary experience, in light of the experience, words, and actions of others who are somehow perceived as part of a lineage? Or is it a way to seek redemption, inspire the future, isolate the past from the contemporary moment, or enrich our flattened understanding? Is it a desire to find a missing part of ourselves?

I have thought about this question a lot, since whenever people ask me about my literary thesis project – what made me drawn to the topic of my thesis on Susan Howe’s interest in Antinomianism (the radical use of evangelizing rhetoric by Anne Hutchinson of the Boston Massachusetts Colony to resist judgement by her community before being ousted by the elders of the Puritan community to the wilderness) – or what makes me currently drawn to Frances Fuller Victor – a historian of Oregon writing in the mid-nineteenth century who cast doubt on the “predestination” of westward expansion – I cannot come up with a clear, or personally viable answer. There is a bit of confusion about my decision to concentrate on certain material and the nature of my approach.

Today, I will shift my attention away from personal inquiry to question the motivations of several authors whose work attaches itself to Protestant religious belief systems as origins for any number of contemporary phenomena including capitalism, American mainstream identity, or racism.

For instance, Max Weber’s famous thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism suggests that a “spirit” of capitalism is inherent to protestant values, specifically of the English Calvinist tradition (the precursor to Puritanism) based on the notions of a “calling” and “predestination” which could suggest that material wealth was a sign of salvation. This topic is still questioned, as the American business class (see this article in Forbes) may find an ideological use for asserting Puritanism as its original ideological guide. Weber’s work was particularly influential for the thinkers of the Frankfurt School.

Without further investigation, this could make anyone skeptical at a glance, since it suggests that capitalism has an eternal “spirit” lacking breaks, fractures, or permutations. Likewise, it seats the origins of the capitalist mechanism in European territory, since Max Weber claims that Buddhism and other religious groups were less capable of fully adopting individual material gain as a virtue independent of social systems. It is easy to feel skeptical towards these ideas in our current era of vast globalization in which many belief systems are capable of molding their values to embrace capitalism, granting it the appearance of a performed, rather than essential practice. It is interesting to note that Max Weber’s work contradicted Marx, who described the motor of history as the material, economic base. Weber suggests that ideology, or belief systems likewise produce an effect.

R.H. Tawney responded to Max Weber in the essay, “Puritanism and Capitalism,” in 1926, unwilling to accept his clean-cut description of Calvinism:   

Weber, in a celebrated essay, expounded the thesis that Calvanism, in its English version, was the parent of capitalism, and Troeltsch, Shulze-Gaevernitz and Cunningham have lent to the same interpretation the weight of their considerable authority. But the heart of man holds mysteries of contradiction which live in vigorous incompatibility together. When the shriveled tissues lie in our hand, the spiritual bond still eludes us.

In every human soul there is a socialist and an individualist, an authoritarian and a fanatic for liberty, as in each there is a Catholic and a Protestant.

Thus, in Tawney, Puritanism itself becomes an example not of separation, but of an inherent complicity with the things its tenets both accept and reject.

Puritanism itself involved a constant questioning of acceptance as the quest for finding evidence of “grace” the proof of God’s salvation reveals; and rejection marked by violent determinations, as the Pequot War exemplifies. Overall, such close attention to the mystical aspects of Puritan “grace” theology and its many perplexing internal contradictions and effects always stand in relief to a relative inattention to native interpretations of Puritan violence.

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Later, Perry Miller, a Historian of Harvard University, wrote his famous book entitled, Errand into the Wilderness (1964), which questioned whether the reason the Puritans came to America was considered self-determined, or pre-determined, in which case, the higher power (a potentially capricious power) could change its mind and drop support for the social experiment. This project distinctly proposes justifications for considering the Puritan-American mind as something distinctly different from the European mind, due to Puritan isolation and uncertainty. Once more, this effort to detach Puritanism from its sources as part of an effort to establish an American essence gives the work an air of nationalism. However, Perry also took up a contemplation of irresolvable contradictions, namely to which extent do idealism (the errand) and material realities (the wilderness) shape history. Earlier, in his work entitled, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1961) Perry contemplates the role of the mind as a factor in shaping human history, through the study of rhetoric and Puritan language and texts. Yet, notably, Perry treats the realities of the social and mental spheres as independent as a means of defining their relationship.

Perhaps granting such a deep psychological aura to Puritanism itself is problematic, as it grants undue attention to the interior social constructs of one particular group of historical agents during the “origins” of America, without considering the numerous factions of other influential agents, and the division within the Puritan’s community itself. Ann Kibbey, a leftist-feminist scholar continued to question the rhetorical uniqueness of Puritan doubt and uncertainty, while she attempted to link this rhetoric to what she considers an inherent tendency for violence and prejudice towards natives and women alike within the Puritan colonies in her book The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: A Study of Rhetoric, Prejudice, and Violence first published in 1986. This work grants special attention to Anne Hutchinson, a woman who was scapegoated from the Puritan community before the rash of witch trials swept through the Puritan communities. However, I feel it is in our interest to consider the Puritan’s development of violence a performed act, rather than a necessity, since even though it invoked imagery, language and forms as the associated rhetoric of violence, this does not mean that these forms literally caused violence: people’s actions did. From my perspective, people may act or embrace ideology with cruel intentions, and they should be duly reckoned for these intentions, but ideology in a vacuum has no conscience, no power. Ideology itself becomes an excuse.

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Another sea of inquiry that highlights the unique role of women and natives as agents shaping the “uncertainty” of Puritan society were the wildly popular captivity narratives of women such as Mary Rowlandson who described their experiences as having been abducted and then returned safely from life with the natives. Poet Susan Howe writes about Mary Rowlandson in her essay “Captivity and Restoration” found within her book entitled The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. The narratives produced by Rowlandson (and her male congregational ministerial scribes) are deeply steeped in religious rhetoric and typology producing an effect that function follows predetermined form. Howe writes, “Early New England rhetoric claimed for every single Christian a particular evangelical and secular use and progress. Individual identity was prophetic and corporate. In the hermeneutics of the Bay Colony every member of the Elect was a figural type on the way of federal eschatology. The break with the Old World was a rupture into contraries.” She reveals that the dilemma of form involved the extremities produced by the pressure of isolation.

Combined, the quest for some innate Euro-American origins using religious explanations of the Puritan mind, rhetoric, profit motive, or any other simplistic framework is not complete without a consideration of natives, women, material realities as well as emotional, mystical, or rational frameworks. The study of Puritans has accommodated such diverse fields of discourse for different ideological frames of inquiry yet, a recurring theme within the study of Puritanism itself is contradiction and what do we do with it? How can we reconcile the simultaneous rupture and continuity of European traditions in the New World, symbolized by the Puritans? The crisis of identity at the core of their history is notable and it resembles narratives of immigration to America from diverse communities as well: coming to seek opportunity, but never feeling a sense of belonging. Deeply consuming life with a quest for transcendence, salvation, and belonging. Yet, understanding that nothing is guaranteed, so we must consume ourselves with work, industry, production as a means to defy uncertainty, etc…

Furthermore, the imperative for economic freedom through markets via rupture (discussed in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine) perhaps makes Puritan contradiction a convenient parallel for our own contemporary forms of brutality. However, Klein herself would attribute this not to one particular doctrine, but any that embraces fundamentalism at its core. She reminds us that any effort to cleanse a system of impurity and eliminate all co-existent ideologies is inherently dangerous and filled with risk, yet such extremism continues to shape and influence our political and economic spheres.

So what draws me to my own autodidactic historical research? The condition of my immigrant heritage to America and the complicit violence and prejudice it suggests? My uprootedness? Perhaps questioning itself, as my method, may be the only identifiable material of my existence.

What marks off the “self” is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.

— Simone Weil, ibid.

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Book Review: L.C. by Susan Daitch

L.C. by Susan Daitch (Dalkey Archive, 1986)

L.C. is a remarkable depiction of the French Revolution from the ground up, through the diary of L.C. I can’t believe this is a first novel.

I’m struck by the title, which reminds me of the way that women once had to obscure their gender by tactics such as reducing their name into initials. It immediately makes me think of the author H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). And just who is the woman behind the initials? Lucienne Crozier, both the heroine and the puppet of a uniquely framed novel. Women, Daitch seems to suggest, are the potent shadow force of history that takes shape into a visible presence throughout the course of this novel through the telescoped narratives of three women: Lucienne Crozier, her independent, bourgeois diary translator Willa Rehnfield, and a politically radical counter-translator who is Rehnfield’s assistant and literary executor named Jane Amme. Lovers of history get to enter into the endless hall of mirrors that bibliophilia represents in this book. The book makes us ask questions. Who is this L.C. and who is the woman translating her diary? Why did this text mean so much to these women? What is at stake in this particular representation of the diary? How is history to be represented? Who has the final word? How do our personal experiences shape our impressions of others? What is the use of history, anyway?

The book begins with an introduction to the diary of Lucienne Crozier, written from 1847-1848 by its translator, Dr. Willa Rehnfield written in 1968.
The physical matter of the book itself is pined over by the scholar with a fetishistic fascination. She reminds us that it was a time when the revolution stirred the social order into a turbulent whirlwind, which gives the diary its significance. Rehnfield avoids defining the political stance of Lucienne Crozier who lived at a time when publications placed Marxism alongside feuilletons, making them “strange bedfellows.” She seeks to debunk the myth of the joy of revolution and its social disruption. Rehnfield presents Lucienne Crozier as a woman who is trapped in history in spite of her private observations as if written by a “penless journalist.” Rehnfield explicitly reminds the reader that “the voice of the translator, therefore, is destined to appear in the literal and metaphorical margins of the text,” a statement which defines the framed questioning of the book as a whole. The novel includes a brief note written by Rehnfield that acknowledges the strange help of the man who lent and then later retracted the diary from her possession, suggesting it had been smuggled away from someone as part of an antiques trade.

The bulk of the novel presents the diary of Lucienne Crozier who intelligently describes the cultural milieu of Paris as a world of art, poverty, political intrigue, and terrorism. She was a member of the middle class whose wealth was diminishing until she is married off to Charles Crozier whose family was interested in a small piece of land she owns where rail might be built. Charles travels the world doing business, while Lucienne stays home in Paris living a life of relative freedom, since she doesn’t have to work. In reality, she wants a divorce and relative independence from her husband, in spite of the fact that he is mostly disinterested in her affairs, whether they are deceptive or not. She becomes an art model for Eugene Delacroix who one day strips her of her clothing and paints her in Morrocan costume. This painting is traced throughout the story, and eventually recovered in the contemporary moment of 1968. Lucienne is one degree from Chopin, George Sand, Baudelaire and other recognizable proper names of the era through her artist connections. Yet, Lucienne has a smug attitude towards the arts: “My disinterest might border on the heretical, but I’m not impressed by mirrors of nature, still less by artificial drama: landscape after seascape, bowls of plums after plates of pears, nude after nude.” Her dead-pan attitude forms a unique kind of pre-modern skepticism and she more or less represents Paris as a wasteland. Her comrades represent an array of conflicting political points of view including artist anti-feminist apologists for the nobility (Delacroix), members of the Marxist “Opposition” (Jean de la Tour), the fashionable and politically oblivious feminine perspective (her friend Fabienne), the feminine working class who in spite of shifting paradigms has no say in the Marxist discourse (her maid, Mathilde). She also argues about politics with her brother Eugene. Much more than art, Crozier is passionate about politics making comments such as, “It’s not a secret system. Only citizens who own property can register to vote…” and the mere thought of granting the vote to bourgeois women seems extraneous to the men. Through her relationship with Jean de la Tour, Lucienne Crozier starts going to secret meetings at 14 Juilliet and her comments provide a unique critique regarding the blindness of the radicals to the political potential of the female population.This part of the diary seems to suggest that the role of women in times of revolution always brings out the conservative underbelly of exclusively male leadership regarding gender. Lucienne Crozier survives the chaos of the actual revolution with people flooding the streets and a woman dying in her arms. After the revolution, Crozier describes declares: “The city behaves like a human body, unable to rid itself of disease.” Friends of hers are murdered and women are told to stay at home at night. Bodies float down the river. She and Jean de la Tour go underground together and eventually leave for Algiers as other members of their underground political organization are murdered.

In the Epilogue to the diary, another voice appears. This is the voice of Jane Amme, the former assistant to the work of Dr. Willa Rehnfield and the literary executor of her work. She begins to debunk the myths that she feels Rehnfield has constructed about Lucienne Crozier. Namely, Rehnfield doesn’t describe in any great detail how she came into possession of the diary. While Rehnfield questions the document’s confidentiality in the form of a personal diary…to what extent does this glimpse into an unedited, personal interior representation of the confusion and messiness of all of the different perspectives that make up a historical narrative deserve to be wrested out of its relative anonymity into the public sphere? But, Amme suggests that the high-profiled status of the diary actually suggests that it is not merely a private discourse surrounding the revolution, but a document written with the full intention of being discovered in its own right as an embodied depiction of that history. She begins to scrutinize Rehnfield’s perspective on history as a scrupulous collector of anecdotal material whose favors those female individuals who pre-date movements and climb social ladders. Amme goes on to suggest that Rehnfield herself was locked in a state of apolitical contemplation in her work. Amme states, “Lucienne would not have approved of her.”

Amme discovers a portion of the diary that had not been included with the larger work that had been prepared for publication. This portion was the part of Lucienne Crozier’s diary that describes her voyage to North Africa. In Rehnfield’s translation, Crozier is reduced to immobility as a woman and she eventually dies there in North Africa. Amme, however, discovers the portion of the original transcript that corresponds to this part of the diary among Rehnfield’s papers and decides to re-translate the work from her much different perspective from that of Rehnfield to allow the reader to determine for themselves how translation distorts a text. Amme, it turns out was an organizer of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement who had helped organize the bombing of the house of an important public figure, thereby murdering them. She, like Lucienne Crozier, had to go underground to escape the FBI’s questioning. She worked as Rehnfield’s assistant precisely because of Rehnfield’s impersonal approach in not asking for references. In Amme’s re-translation, which ends the book, a uniquely different perspective of Lucienne Crozier surfaces. She is an active political agent in North Africa, dressing in drag to gain mobility and acting as a spy of sorts. In the end, Amme decides to provocatively destroys the original that she used for translation. This leaves us with the ethical question of how history is scripted and who has the final word. Comments such as: “To all this Willa Rhnfield would have said, no voyeur is truly inert” direct the reader to enter into the discourse of historic representations and its many implications. The result of the novel is a strange impression of Lucienne Crozier whose role in the French Revolution is never quite clear because it always mediated.

Daitch’s subtle manipulation of supposed objectivity, through the lens of different individuated consciousnesses tears away at any sense of gendered female essentialism, and heightens the sense of intention and instrumentality in each depiction of the translated text. Daitch engages with a project of fictional historic recovery that raises all of the compelling questions of representation that go along with it. Who is speaking? Why are they speaking? What do we learn from history if nothing more than a reflection of our own hopes and desires for the future? The collaborative mosaic that comprises history is parsed into a telescopic presentation in which Daitch is able to attach minute differences in vocabulary and narration to different translations. The excitement of historic change is captured in a vague sense of a generational revolution that transpired from the 1950s to the 1970s in the United States academia, suggested by the difference between Rehnfield and Amme.

Lastly, I commend Susan Daitch for exhibiting a sophisticated feminine addition to the theme in contemporary fiction of literary executorship most notably explored in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Anyone who has read that book knows that its depiction of women lacks substance. Clearly, the mimetic filters and shifts of Nabokov’s work hearken back to Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I couldn’t help but wonder, does Daitch choose the initials L.C. to somehow insert herself into this novelistic trajectory of influence?