Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Young America in Literature: A Calvinist Assumption

A key theme in American literature is a play on a Calvinist assumption that people, and especially people with power, are up to no damn good. This theme comes to us from the Old Testament and St. Augustine, and from St. Thomas Aquinas on natural theology--though, in respect to Aquinas, the conclusion is essentially Calvinist; by way of example, see Thomas Jefferson in his opening remarks both to the Declaration and to The Virginia Act of Religious Freedom. Technical analyses of the idea can be found in Wittgenstein.  See, for example, On Certainty; though Wittgenstein's many circumspect remarks on the human condition, recorded in Ray Monk's biography and elsewhere, are rather more pertinent to the matter here.

In Moby-Dick, the theme is played out as Ishmael works through his youthful non-involvement, takes responsibility for himself, goes into survival mode, and brings to bear a mature skeptical attitude in an assessment of the people he finds himself with on board the Pequod: what an evil madman Ahab is, what an unaware cypher Mr. Flask is, what a moral coward (at bottom, and ironically) Mr. Stubb is, what a "bureaucratic" conformist Mr. Starbuck is, and what a lot of brutes the crew are... In "Benito Cereno", Melville plays on this theme as Captain Delano naively walks among the slaves who have taken over Cereno's ship, and how, after much narrative suspension, Delano finally figures out what's going on and takes control of the situation... In The Confidence-Man, Melville repeatedly plays on the theme, presenting a series of scenarios where people (with one or two exceptions) fail to see that they are being conned by the devil.

In The Scarlet Letter, it comes in the form of too-slowly identifying various "enemies"-- Chillingworth, the community, its moral foundations, its leadership, its theocratic system--and failing to take appropriate action.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it comes in the form of the various misadventures experienced by Jim and Huck, and concludes with Huck heading out West as the appropriate response to the underlying fraud that riddles society, and so on.

Richard Basehart as Ishmael in Moby-Dick

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