Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wicked Company: Holbach's salon, Diderot, & friends (4)

This is the final installment of my review of A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom.

As chapter 18 ends, we find Diderot and Holbach fortunate to die before the onslaught of the French Revolution for which their writings helped pave the way.
Both Diderot and the baron were interred in the ossuarium, a cryptlike room underneath the same altar, together with other famous Frenchmen, such as their friend Claude-Adrien Helvétius, the grand salon hostess Marie-Thérèse de Geoffrin, the great landscape artist André le Nôtre, and the dramatist Pierre Corneille.

During the Revolution, the burial place was ransacked, and the remains were torn from their resting places and scattered across the room. The rebels of the 1871 Paris Commune repeated this blasphemous ritual, and while the bones are still lying in the ossuarium, it was judged impossible to determine the parts of the individual skeletons.
After this chapter comes the "Epilogue: A Stolen Revolution." While Jonathan Israel has advanced the notion of the Radical Enlightenment in a series of scholarly works, Blom has told the story in a popular format. His Epilogue makes his intervention even more radical. This book should be put into as many hands as possible, but it also provides food for thought for more erudite readers.

I lack a detailed knowledge of the French Revolution beyond scattered facts, so Blom provides for me at least quite a revelation and quite an important one. Maximilien Robespierre is unequivocally condemned as a betrayer of the Radical Enlightenment. Considering the complex political mess of the revolutionary period, I won't comment on Robespierre's role in the dictatorship and Terror. Of interest in Blom's account is the emphasis that the most ruthless and violent acts, including those against the Catholic establishment, were not carried out by atheists, and that atheists themselves were executed for being such. Catholicism was supplanted not by atheism but by deism, Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being. In the process Robespierre practically deified Rousseau. Robespierre established elaborate festivals in honor of the Goddess of Reason. These details are most revealing:
With an immense flair for classicist bombast and ideological kitsch, the painter Jacques-Louis David, the chief decorator of the Revolution, designed huge, papier-mâché statues of Virtue, Liberty, and Nature—the latter endowed with multiple breasts that dispersed refreshing water, which was drunk out of a common chalice by eighty-six old men symbolizing the departments of France. On 20 Prairial Year II of the new calendar (June 8, 1794, to the uninitiated), Robespierre held a public ceremony for the Supreme Being in the Tuileries gardens. Attended by a crowd of thousands, it included not only a lengthy sermon by Robespierre but also the ritual burning of a statue of Atheism, the charred debris of which revealed an effigy of Truth—unfortunately blackened by smoke.

Implementing his new religion, Robespierre brooked no opposition, even from the dead. On December 5, 1792, the very day on which he was to give his famous speech demanding the execution of King Louis XVI, he had ordered the removal and smashing of a bust of Helvétius, which had been standing in the Jacobin Club next to an effigy of Rousseau. Helvétius had been celebrated by some Revolutionaries as a proponent of reasonable, republican government.
Note also:
After Robespierre’s fall and execution in 1794, the fortunes of Holbach, Helvétius, and Diderot were revived very briefly by the left-leaning Gracchus Babeuf, whose political thinking would today be described as egalitarianism, perhaps even Socialism. But Babeuf’s attempt to gain control of the reeling ship of state, the “Conspiracy of Equals,” was betrayed, and so was he. During his trial in 1797, he frequently cited Diderot as an inspiration, to no other effect than that Denis was regarded posthumously as a dangerous enemy of the people.
Diderot's posthumous reputation was subject either to neglect or calumny. Adulterated versions of his work were published. Uncorrupted versions of his texts saw light in the latter part of the 19th century. Other unpublished manuscripts remained hidden until well into the 20th century. Aside from the fragmentary publication of Diderot's works, the conditions under which he worked also fostered fragmentation.
His work remained eclectic, partly because he was as much an author of fiction and a talker as he was a systematic writer. Both of these factors conspired against Diderot’s recognition as an important thinker. The nineteenth century was the period of great systematic works, of Kant’s Critiques, Hegel’s grand expositions, Marx and his Capital. Diderot simply did not fit the mold: His best thoughts are to be found in his letters, his fiction, his writings on art, and his essays on other works.

Diderot published no great work of systematic philosophy that could have established his reputation in a climate obsessed with all-embracing answers. In addition to the heterogeneity of his writings, his constant, teasing ambivalence makes it impossible to read the philosophe as a dogmatic author. His work sparkles and often provokes—ultimately leaving the reader alone to make up her own mind. As a result, even historians and philosophers who should be his natural allies have too often overlooked him. The French writer Michel Onfray, for instance, has created a publishing sensation with his Contre-histoire de la philosophie, which concentrates on materialist and atheist authors. In his book Les ultras de lumières (The “Ultras” of the Enlightenment) he devotes entire chapters to personal heroes such as La Mettrie, Meslier, Helvétius, and Holbach—but not Diderot.
Holbach's work was systematic, but having appeared under various pseudonyms under the threat of repression, the establishment of authorship did not come quickly or easily. Holbach's unremitting atheism and materialism kept him out of the philosophical canon. He remained generally obscure, though he had his admirers such as Marx.

The Soviet Union pulled the radical Enlighteners—Holbach, Diderot, and Helvétius—out of the shadows and made them prominent figures of honor. Blom sees the Soviet social order as having had more in common with Rousseau than with the Radical Enlightenment.The fall of the Soviet bloc on top of the rise of postmodernism again relegated Holbach to obscurity. Blom reiterates that philosophical historiography initiated in the 19th century followed that century as the age of German idealism—Kant and Hegel. The Radical Enlightenment continues to be sidelined.

Here Blom interjects his most radical thesis:
The Enlightenment applauded and required by the capitalist and imperialist nineteenth century was a moderate version represented by Voltaire, who had always known on which side his bread was buttered, and by the exponents of Idealism, particularly Immanuel Kant. The question at issue here was skepticism. The Enlightenment radicals had argued that there is no grand, metaphysical Truth and that consequently the only valuable knowledge is based on evidence: Do what is useful; avoid what is harmful to yourself or others.

While this moral teaching had the advantage of being simple and easily understood, it was a thorn in the side of Europe’s and America’s burgeoning capitalist societies and their colonial empires. Implacably opposed to the “conspiracy of the priests and magistrates,” to national claims of superiority, to the exploitation of the poor and the oppression of peoples on foreign shores, the radicals stood against the intellectual tide of the century.

The nineteenth century needed a philosophical tradition that justified the colonial enterprise as well as the industrial exploitation of cheap labor, and it turned to the moderate, rationalist Enlightenment to provide it by giving a philosophical justification of religious faith. Meslier, Diderot, and Holbach had pointed out how organized religion leads to an unholy union of priests and magistrates, and the great bourgeois societies of the nineteenth century drew their authority and their social hierarchy out of precisely this union. Historians of philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic therefore emphasized an ultimately deist, religious eighteenth century, with Kant and Voltaire as its greatest exponents.

In this model of history, Immanuel Kant fulfilled a similar function for the eighteenth century as René Descartes had for the seventeenth: His grand metaphysical investigation left open a door through which God could be introduced back into philosophy. Kant argued that our senses determine how the world appears to us and that we may never be able to perceive things as they really are, the “things in themselves.” But instead of accepting that we cannot know anything beyond our perception and that it makes no sense to talk about what we cannot know, he conjectured a purely essential, spiritual reality that is inaccessible to human understanding, a reality in which we might imagine a deity beyond the grasp of the senses. One can read Kant safely without compromising one’s religious beliefs, which can always be safely tucked away among the “things in themselves.” Voltaire, the wit and critical commentator opposed to religious excess, fitted equally well into the designs of a civilization that saw itself as scientific and rationalist, without being antireligious or unpatriotic.

It is worth understanding this idea of rationalism, of scientific reason in harmony with the possibility of religious faith, which still dominates our understanding of the Enlightenment. Kant’s idea of pure reason not only was a field of philosophical research but also represented a cultural ideal: If only we could rationalize the world in its entirety, if only we could rid ourselves of animal instinct and unreasoning impulse, the world would be a better place.
Wow! In this scenario, the Radical Enlightenment has been virtually wiped out of historical memory. Blom sees the Moderate Enlightenment (and deism with it) as an idealized rationalism akin to theology, while the Radical Enlightenment not only strips teleology from the universe but expresses severe skepticism about the ultimate rationality of human beings.
The soft Enlightenment of Voltaire and Kant was highly commensurate with bourgeois values. Reason was celebrated but confined to science, where it did not threaten to violate the sacred grove of religion. Ideally, the human mind was seen as abstract and pure. Merged with faith, it formed the heavy trap door under which the continual guilt of desire and passion was shut away once again in a distasteful souterrain of human nature.
And there's more:
After all, the goal of industrialization was to rationalize society as far as possible; to optimize manufacturing processes, such as division of labor and the assembly line; and to achieve the increasingly efficient planning and control of everything from transport and leisure to sex, punishment, and entertainment. The era that built the greatest railway stations and factories also erected the largest prisons, all according to the same organizing principles of tightly managed production and supply. When the twentieth-century Marxist scholars Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno published their Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947, they had witnessed (and escaped) the most monstrous travesty of this logic: the fully industrialized murder of human beings in Nazi extermination camps.
Wow and wow! I will comment on this forthwith, but one final quote on the Radical Enlightenment, from the sixth final paragraph of the Epilogue:
The radical humanism emanating from their works was read and understood by a small band of exceptional minds, among them not only the poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who loved Diderot but detested Holbach), Heinrich Heine, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, but also Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.
Stephen Eric Bronner, I, and others have had problems with Dialectic of Enlightenment. As Bronner has argued, the work supplants concrete historical analysis with an abstract, metaphysical historical perspective which also does injustice to the Enlightenment, which Bronner has defended most notably in his book Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. Amazingly, Blom leaves the thesis of Horkheimer and Adorno untouched, but lays the blame on the Moderate Enlightenment! This is quite a radical statement, cutting through the prevailing ideological climate of our time.

It is possible, as critics of Jonathan Israel have asserted, that the political alignments and cleavage between the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment are too neatly schematized. Yet the emphasis on the social values of the Radical Enlightenment cannot be underestimated, given the attacks on the Enlightenment not only by the theocratic fascists of the right, but by the left bourgeois ideologues of the identity politics of our neoliberal era.

I should note nonetheless that the assimilation of Holbach, Diderot, and company into our awareness within the strict area of the discipline of philosophy bears certain limitations. The various dimensions—the scientific ideas and orientation as well as the progressive social values—of the Radical Enlightenment have been so thoroughly absorbed into the progressive tendencies of our time, that the only reason to read Holbach for example (Diderot on the other hand remains relevant from a literary standpoint) would be the same as the reason to read Newton—out of historical rather than current interest. Science has long moved on. The Radical Enlightenment is light on epistemology, which is of central interest to philosophy even when one removes skepticism and foundationalism as a focus of concern.  Still, reading the Radical Enlightenment back into the general historiography of philosophy can alter our historical perspective on its biases, contours, and development.

Here are some additional links. On my website:
On other sites:

Wicked Company: Holbach's salon, Diderot, & friends (3)

I finally finished reading this 384-page saga: A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom. What an adventure!

It is written for the general reader and is the most effective argument for the Radical Enlightenment I have seen, particularly the Epilogue following the account of the deaths of Holbach and Diderot, the heroes of the book, esp. Diderot. The final chapter alone is radical.

A recap of the contents:




My previous post on this book sketchily covered up through part 2 (chapter 12). Chapter 13 begins with Cesare Beccaria's argument against capital punishment, which, curiously, did not impress Diderot. Diderot was not a systematic thinker, and he was skeptical of the possibilities of both ideal government and rational administration. Unlike other skeptics, though, Diderot was not attracted to conservatism. He developed progressive views on specific issues, notably women's rights and education.

The subject of chapter 14--"the most ungrateful dogg"--is Rousseau, who turned against all his friends, including Diderot.

Chapter 15 is about the triumph and subversive nature of the Encyclopédie. The subversion, of course, had to be slyly embedded in various entries. The common theme of Diderot's cohort was the advocacy of reason, but each person had a different orientation to its role and potential. Diderot was more skeptical about the possibility of the actualization of reason in the world.
Diderot’s greatness as a philosopher lies partly in the constant, pulsating tension between rationality and instinct. In contrast to Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Kant, who suggested a totally rational world order that would free individuals from the troubling influence of irrational forces within themselves, Diderot wrote about a complex, contradictory, and essentially dark human nature illuminated only rarely by the sunlight of reason. Holbach believed that life must be liberated from superstition and oppression, but he was essentially serene in his belief in reason; for Diderot, life was always marred by error and destruction because human beings can never be purely rational.
For Diderot, the body was everything there was, and reason was a bodily function with a tendency to transcendental megalomania. True insight lay not in fighting, ignoring, or sublimating physical desire, but in building a life in which it had its place. The tension between reason and instinct appeared at precisely this moment. As a philosopher who wanted to change the general way of thinking, he had to believe in the power of persuasion and of virtue, but at the same time his materialist conviction made him uncertain of both.
Chapter 16 details Diderot's experience of Empress Catherine of Russia, who took up his offer to buy his library on condition that he become its librarian and visit her in St. Petersburg. Life in France was becoming dangerous for heretics, and despite Diderot's wariness about people in power, he reluctantly accepted. Catherine feted him and received his ideas with great enthusiasm, accepting his unconventional manner and lack of toadying . . . up to a point. He got overly absorbed in his role:
Diderot backed up his irrepressible stream of ideas with a series of memoranda on different aspects of modernizing the Russian empire according to Enlightened principles, including the importance of tolerance, the promotion of manufacturing, a complete overhaul of the administration, a draft constitution, and a plan for a new university system. Despotic rule and total authority would inevitably lead to a society marked by servility, superstition, and lack of initiative, he told his hostess, the most absolute of absolute monarchs.
He was not prepared for the rebuff that followed. He realized that he was being used to polish the public image of a despot. Returning home in ill health, he contemplated the question of whether one can be more in a deterministic world, resuming working on his Sterne-inspired novel, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master.

Chapter 17 provides some vital information new to me. Report of the encounter of Europeans with the very different mores of the people of Tahiti made Diderot a firm opponent of colonialism. His 1772 essay Supplement to Bougainville’s Journey, or Dialogue Between A and B About the Disadvantages of Attaching Moral Ideas to Certain Physical Acts Which Do Not Call for Them roundly condemns European Christian mores and the European mission of conquest. Nothing is more strikingly different in the two cultures than their sexual views and practices. In his Unconnected Thoughts on Painting Diderot contrasts European sexual prudery with its uninhibited, explicit depiction of violence, blood, and gore. Diderot at least thinks that art can tell us how to improve.
The creativity of art is nothing else than the erotic life of the mind, a common ritual allowing us to accept nature, pleasure, and pain. The greatest, the deepest pleasure of all, erotic love, is the best incentive for creating a society more in tune with our nature and ultimately with nature’s drive towards the survival of the species.
Diderot does not romanticize the Tahitians in the European mold of the 'noble savage', emphasizing that the Tahitians thought that sex should result in fertility. It seems then, that Diderot emphasizes the relativity of customs rather than an absolute ideal. However, the Tahitians lived more rationally in accord with nature than the Europeans. Diderot was far from irreproachable in his depiction of non-European peoples, however he drew egalitarian conclusions in his writings, and his view of sexuality and human nature was at the opposite pole from Rousseau's. Above all, Diderot was vehemently opposed to slavery.

Diderot was an admirer of the United States. Blom deliberates on the possible meetings of the representatives of the American Enlightenment (Jefferson, Franklin) with Holbach's circle.

Chapter 18 depicts Holbach and Diderot in their old age as they wind down toward death. France's own aristocrats shunned Holbach's circle, but foreign aristocrats flocked to it. Holbach and Diderot remained no less suspicious of the aristocracy. Diderot's friend Grimm had turned reactionary. Diderot dreaded the publication of Rousseau's Confessions and became increasingly concerned with his reputation, the only 'immortality' he believed in. In his old age, Diderot was running out of energy and friends. Holbach was still alive, but the two communicated less and less. Diderot died in 1784, Holbach in 1789.
Diderot, Holbach, and their circle had made history, redefining the terms of the debate between religion and science, of politics and morality. Their only judge, they thought, would be posterity. They had no idea just how right they were, no means of knowing how posterity would treat them, and they would have been appalled to think that, having weathered and triumphed over the storms of their own time, their legacy would be all but obliterated by what was to come. They would be practically forgotten for over a century.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

I just finished reading Janna Levin's novelization A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. It is a superb piece of writing. At the end the author (an astrophysicist) lists her sources and indicates which aspects of the narrative are her fictional inventions and which historically accurate, with sources also for quotes.

The principal characters are Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel, both geniuses and revolutionaries in the realm of mathematical logic (Turing the theoretical pioneer of computation and artificial intelligence), both out of their minds, and both meeting a tragic end. But they are also polar opposites in one respect: Turing the mechanical materialist, Gödel the spiritualist, both unable to deal with the world they lived in from opposing yet united philosophical perspectives.

By comparison, another important character, Ludwig Wittgenstein, is sane, though he is wigged out himself. Moritz Schlick, head of the Vienna Circle (eventually murdered by a fascist), is pretty tight-assed himself, but more normal. The most human of the male geniuses are Otto Neurath and Oskar Morgenstern. All these are real people, though the actual treatment of their interchanges with the main characters are embellished in spots--with Otto and Oskar, that is.

There is so much a novel can do to remain generally digestible while engaging the ideas of Gödel, Turing, and Wittgenstein, but one gets a sense of their overall obsessions if not the technical depth of their ideas, though one gets a general notion of what they are. Not all geniuses are so one-sided, but such is the course of human history. That we can think anything at all is a wonder under the circumstances.

Of note to us would be the relationship of the innovations of the central characters in the formal sciences to their extra-formal philosophies to their actual social existence. Wittgenstein, who exploited formalism in his Tractatus, is the least impressed by it, seeing no real problem in contradiction in mathematics or logic proper, contrary to Gödel, Turing, and Schlick. All of these people, however, as is the world, were caught up in larger contradictions which they could not even adequately conceptualize, let alone surmount.

This by an astrophysicist and a first class writer. If I actually believed women were superior in integrating thought and feeling, this would convince me.

Here is her web site

Janna Levin's Space

Here, you can find out more about her novel and the take on the subject matter in an interview:

"Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth | On Being". Speaking of Faith. 2012-05-31

A few months ago I encountered Levin (didn't know who she was) on an episode of "Star Talk" by Neil de Grasse Tyson. You can listen to the entire episode on the Star Talk site or watch it on Facebook:

Celebrating Einstein - Star Talk, March 9, 2018

StarTalk: Special Einstein Episode

Here is what I wrote at the time:

Later on, there's a lot about black holes with a side order of neutron stars. Also at the end Levin says that what is most amazing about Einstein is the acceptance of constraints (speed of light) and fierce intellectual independence. Early on, what is most interesting is the assertion that had Einstein not been there, special relativity would have been discovered within a few years. But general relativity was so different from what anyone was thinking, that without Einstein it would have taken another half century to come up with something and it would have looked completely different. This is a testimony to Einstein's imagination and intuition and intellectual boldness, the most amazing scientific achievement in history.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Wicked Company: Holbach's salon, Diderot, & friends (2)

I am past the halfway mark through the incredibly detailed, highly readable volume A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom. There are a number of interesting characters in it, and the contrast of characters, styles, philosophies, and behaviors is most interesting. There is the cooperation as well as temperamental and stylistic differences between the heroes of the book, Holbach and Diderot, at the center of the Radical Enlightenment. I also take note of the different perspectives and social roles of Rousseau, Voltaire, and David Hume.

All of the Frenchmen had their shortcomings when it comes to applying their principles to their wives and/or mistresses. Diderot is portrayed as more passionate, more bold in his rejection of traditional morality, and livelier in his writing style than his friend Holbach. (He edited much of the lead out of Holbach's prose.) Both are the heroes of the book, but Diderot comes off as more well-rounded and vital, though Holbach's literary output was prodigious as was his table. Both sought to re-ground morality casting aside not only the repressive morality of Catholicism but all theistically based notions. Nature is the basis of their rational world view and the fulfillment of pleasure combined with cooperation the basis of their morality. Diderot nevertheless was totally unrestrained in his advocacy of sexuality, casting aside whatever inhibitions (Stoical tendencies) that might still be found in Holbach's perspective. (Note though Diderot's disdain for La Mettrie.)

Rousseau was a piece of work. A product of malformed sexuality and upbringing, his paranoia and persecution complex poisoned all of his relationships with his friends, some of whom he also attacked in his writings. While a product of the same Enlightenment intellectual heritage as the Radical Enlightenment, he gave all of these ideas a reactionary spin once he opposed the atheism and sensualism of Holbach and Diderot, whom he grew to detest. He was a proto-Romantic, rebelling against Enlightenment rationalism, attacking the notion of civilizational progress, and equating the uncorrupted state of nature with godliness (though human nature is judged as corrupted by desire), essentially duplicating in modern form the Christian morality the Radical Enlightenment rejected. Despite Rousseau's critique of inequality, his social world view, including his conception of the general will and his views of education, censorship, religion, and political rule, is seeded with authoritarianism. His ideal society has all the features of a police state. Hence Rousseau effectively erases his incipient dialectical notion that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. Blom effectively relates Rousseau's ultimately regressive social vision and his spiteful philosophical betrayal of his former friends to his personal history and pathology.

Voltaire is presented largely as an opportunist, pursuing his own wealth, status, and reputation, and despite his problems with clerical and aristocratic despotism, attacked the Radical Enlightenment for his own ends. (As a deist he attacked atheism.)

David Hume was received as a superstar in France. Feted there, he had the time of his life, but philosophically he was quite at a distance from his hosts despite their enthusiasm for him. Hume was a skeptic rather than an atheist and he lacked that sharp polemical opposition to the social order exhibited by the Radical Enlightenment. Of note in this account is that the French materialists bypassed the epistemological preoccupation with certainty, skepticism, and justification that would drive so much of modern philosophy. For Holbach, who contributed mightily to the development of a scientific world view, science, based on empirical engagement with the world, provided the source for knowledge. No other justification was needed. Hume's philosophical preoccupation was quite foreign to him. And Holbach was quite prescient in his scientific ideas. I think that this was the main way forward at this point, though the epistemology behind it was not finely developed from what I can tell--the nature of concept and theory formation, etc. Hume was innovative in bringing to light fundamental issues that would devastate traditional a priori metaphysics, and it was too early at that point to see clearly what a dead end skepticism as the dogmatic inverse of dogmatism would become.

Generalizing the narrative so far, Blom insists that the Radical Enlightenment has been gravely misrepresented. "Passion is crucial to the radical Enlightenment." (Their moral theory on the positivity of sensual enjoyment, empathy, etc., is detailed, in contradistinction to both Christian morality and nihilism.) But also the Radical Enlightenment's view of Reason is the polar opposite both of Rousseau's repressive world view and technocratic rationalization.
So much of the Enlightenment was or was represented as a cult of “pure reason” (in Immanuel Kant’s key phrase) that it is still common in our day to think of this great philosophical paradigm shift as being concerned merely with making life more rational, more efficient, and less superstitiously medieval. This may be partly true for moderate, often deist thinkers such as Leibniz, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Kant, and even for Diderot’s friend Helvétius, but it was never true of the radical Enlightenment around Diderot and Holbach.

To the Enlightenment radicals, reason is merely a technical faculty of analysis, part of our material constitution. But while moderate thinkers wanted to create a life governed less by the passions and more by rational behavior, a life purified of physical desire and instinctive acts, Holbach and particularly Diderot wanted to create a society in which individuals could live as far as possible in harmony with their desires and fulfill them. Reason was simply a tool for a life that was essentially passionate and governed by vital drives, by pleasure and pain.
Now whether or not this world view is sufficiently well articulated in hindsight is less important than the facile assumptions indiscriminately attributed to the Enlightenment. My first thought is to refer here to Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno, which I have always disliked. As it happens, at book's end Blom does refer to it, and he lays all the blame for instrumental reason critiqued therein on the moderate Enlightenment!

There is no mention of William Blake in the book, but while Blake's aversion to much of the Enlightenment (though he had engaged it earlier in life, e.g. via Wollstonecraft and Paine), links the imperial capitalist order Blake opposed to empiricism proximately and materialism somewhat more remotely--specifically the figures of moderate English/Scottish and French Enlightenment, the Frenchmen targeted being Voltaire and Rousseau. Blake could never have been congenial to the materialism of the Radical Enlightenment, but perhaps earlier in life he could have accommodated aspects of it as he accommodated Thomas Paine.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Madalyn Murray O'Hair: The Most Hated Woman in America

I recently watched The Most Hated Woman in America, about Madalyn Murray O'Hair, on Netflix. I read a comprehensive biography of her some years ago, but my memory is a bit hazy:

LeBeau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

See my previous posts on O'Hair for my notes on this biography.

The film begins with her and son and (grand?)daughter kidnapped with hoods over their heads. I would think the dialogue is completely contrived, because unless the murderer-to-be told the story, how would be know? Seems tasteless to me. The police have no interest in following up on their disappearance, and the born-again son doesn't want to be bothered.

The motive for the kidnapping is blackmail, for funds the kidnappers know O'Hair secreted overseas, unbeknownst to the IRS.

Then flashback to 1955 in Baltimore. Madalyn and her young son are living with their parents, particularly the nasty Christian judgmental father. Madalyn is pregnant again as an unwed mother, which makes her a pariah in 1955. They're watching TV, Negroes are protesting not being able to be served somewhere, and Madalyn does not approve of this treatment. She and her son become the only white people to join the protest. She is an acid-tongued rebel, contemptuous of Christian hypocrisy. Her son knows the word "nonconformist".

Then it's 1960 .... she is a social worker. I don't remember any of this, but I'm pretty sure Madalyn got her MSW at Howard University.

Jumps to 1961: violent harassment. Jumps to 1963 Supreme Court decision against compulsory school prayer: rednecks go nuts. Jumps to 1964.

Madalyn founds American Atheists. Fired from social work job in Baltimore. Famous speech. Challenges Baltimore school system again. Makes cover of LOOK magazine: the most hated woman in America.

Flash forward to hostage situation--weird. News media not interested in the Murrays' disappearance, except for this one reporter. The man who reported missing persons is black and gay, rejected by parents, taken in by O'Hair--I didn't know this.

Flashback decades past: more controversy, radio programs, attack. Madalyn is married now. Later, older son is married with child, doesn't want to remain in the maelstrom. Jump ahead in time again: Madalyn on Carson; son's wife files for divorce.

Jump to 1979: O'Hair now in Austin, with protests against her.

Son Bill is a drunk, Madalyn and Bill now hate one another. Momma's boy Bill abandons her. Madalyn on Donahu debating Rev. Bob Harrington. They go on the road, making tons of money. I know there were debates, but this chumminess--for real? Son Bill in AA, a wreck now praying.

Son Bill denounces Madalyn on TV, now a public Christian. Madalyn hires future kidnapper. 1993: Found out he was a killer; this didn't bother her.

1994: Big fight between Madalyn and future kidnapper at solstice party. Several flash backs and forwards. In the future, son Bill gets involved, files missing persons report, suggests kidnapping is an inside job.

1995: news report on O'Hair. Skip ahead to 1998: reporter still investigating. Flashback to the murders. There were 3 kidnappers: starts with the killing of Robin, then Garth, then Madalyn. They are sawed in pieces, buried in a field. One of the kidnappers murdered. David Waters confesses.

I don't recall enough of the actual biography to know where inaccuracies in this biopic are to be found. It is quite sad. In real life Madalyn was quite a pill. The film does capture at various moments something you will find more of in the biography: while an outspoken rebel, Madalyn wanted to be thought of at times as a normal person, emphasizing family. At some point in the kidnapping in the film, she says, maybe in a flashback or voiceover--I don't remember now--that she most wants to be remembered as a mother. Then we see the brutal murders of her atheist son and granddaughter and finally of her. We need to remember that she was already a pariah as an unwed mother in a repressive society. I'm guessing it was the hypocrisy of white Christian America that drove her to single out atheism as her central cause among all the injustices she saw. But her environment also induced a single-minded narrowness that the more genteel "humanists" of the '60s could afford not to have--their narrowness was of a different sort--that drove her to act like the Stalin of atheism.