Alexander C. Chirila, holds a PhD in Writing and Criticism from the State University at Albany, and currently teaches English and Literature at Webster University, Thailand. He is the author of numerous short stories, articles, a full-length novel entitled True Immortality.
Comparative Symbolism and Archetypal Progressions in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
Publisher: LAP Publishing
Published on: 2011
The Post-Jungian analytical model, situated at the crossroads of comparative religion, symbolism, and archetypal analysis, invites an interdisciplinary approach that is increasingly relevant in today’s academic environment. There is no better testament to the versatility of this method than the juxtaposition of authors as disparate as Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy. Both writers generate myths that reflect changes in the cultural perception of national ideologies. By pairing Huck Finn with Homer’s Odyssey and Blood Meridian with Dante’s Inferno, Chirila demonstrates how mythic and symbolic influences operate on conscious and unconscious levels within the psyches of both texts.
A LIBRARY OF SOCIAL SCIENCE ESSAY
The version of Alexander Chirila’s essay that appears in this Newsletter is a condensed version. The complete essay appears on our website.
The idealized nemesis, as constructed by the collective psychology of a nation, can take many forms, from the barbarous hordes storming the gate to the cunning opponent scheming across a global chessboard. Perhaps the most insidious of these nemeses is the enemy within. Characterized as a “fifth column,” viral infection, or spreading cancer, the enemy within generates a range of psychological reactions on the national scale, including an inward-focused aggression fixated on “rooting out” the enemy by emphasizing, aggrandizing, and mythologizing a standard of health linked to collective self-identity. The enemy, in turn, is a negative composite of oppositional, undesirable, and grotesque qualities that are uniquely configured to infiltrate, contaminate, and potentially transform the national body.
Richard M. Fried writes that “it was in 1949 that anti-communism planted itself squarely in the nation’s political consciousness” (1990:87). Known now as the “McCarthy era,” the years between 1947 and 1955 saw the American perception of the communist threat reach a fever-pitch. On Lincoln’s birthday, February 9, 1950, Joseph McCarthy delivered his now-infamous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, considered to mark the beginning of an explicit, publically recognized declaration of war against domestic communism.
There were many people who did not doubt that what McCarthy declared regarding the Communist threat was true; that there were Reds everywhere, prepared to debilitate the country in advance of nuclear war. On both the individual and collective level, the Shadow—momentarily dissipated following WWII—resolved into another shape, painted with advancing degrees of impressionistic boldness by McCarthy’s rhetoric. The fears shared amongst members of the American collective, both intimate and public, coalesced into a “Red menace,” a new bogeyman that “could be everywhere.” Coworkers, neighbors, associates, and friends—no one was exempt from suspicion.
While America was never in any significant danger of degenerating into a dictatorship, antipathy towards tyranny runs deep in the fiber of the national psyche. Any severe curtailment of civil liberties (or any imagined or perceived curtailment) neutralizes the primary attributes ascribed to the heroic projection of American identity. When the enemy’s qualities begin to resemble those associated with the heroic Self, there is a moment of schism, of rupturing, when the Self and the Nemesis are both revealed as creations of the collective psyche. Their purpose is to enact symbolic dramas of validation.
Behind McCarthy, and far more influential by far, was J. Edgar Hoover. As Director of the newly minted Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover directed considerable energy towards the identification and investigation of suspected communists. For Hoover, domestic communism was an enemy of apocalyptic proportions: “it stands for the destruction of our American form of government; it stands for the destruction of American Democracy; it stands for the destruction of free enterprise; and it stands for the creation of a ‘Soviet of the United States’ and ultimate world revolution” (1947). The author of two books on the subject—Masters of Deceit (1958) and A Study of Communism (1962)—as well as numerous pamphlets and articles, Hoover’s rhetoric is a striking example of how the enemy within is ideated.
Identity matrices are composed in relation to what is believed foreign or antithetical to them. Identity is shaped around dynamic interfaces with forces that exist “outside” the assumed boundaries of the Self. Some of these interfaces may be aggressive, confrontational, or combative; others may be friendly or supportive; others neutral, convenient, necessary, or obligatory. It is often the case where the Self, engaged in various negotiations and interactions with outside forces, is presented as a whole. It is distilled into a specific matrix of projected associations—the equivalent, on a collective scale, of what is known as putting on a face.
In order for the enemy within to exist, competing narratives must be recognized and accorded a position relative to the interface between virus and antibody; the magnitude of the response is commensurate with the assumed threat. When there is a disjunction between the threat and response, as when the response far exceeds the presumed danger, the consensus necessary to perpetuate the purgative or curative strategy is lost.
J. Edgar Hoover’s ideation of communism substantiates the viral metaphor clearly: “Victory will be assured once communists are identified and exposed because the public will take the first step of quarantining them so they can do no harm. Communism, in reality, is not a political party. It is a way of life–an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic; and like an epidemic, a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation” (1947). By the time McCarthy took the stage, the roots of anti-communism in the United States had already burrowed deep into the psychological soil of the country.
Hoover rhetorically asks what can be done to combat the menace of subversive communism: “the best anecdote to communism is vigorous, intelligent, old-fashioned Americanism with eternal vigilance” (1947). What exactly does Hoover mean by “Americanism”? Here is part of his answer: “Americans, young and adult, should know more about the basic traditions of America, our history, our national heroes, our democratic traditions. A young person versed in the concepts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln will not follow the siren calls of communist traitors” (1969).
George Kennan, an American diplomat on the Soviet front, wrote what would prove an influential Long Telegram, later published and titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (1947). It is noteworthy in this context because it provides insight into how the enemy was represented. Kennan was considered an authority on the subject; his analysis of the Soviet character would have been taken as the product of professional insight and direct observation. Writing on Stalin and those who aided his succession, Kennan considers that:
Their particular brand of fanaticism, unmodified by any of the Anglo-Saxon traditions of compromise, was too fierce and too jealous to envisage any permanent sharing of power. From the Russian-Asiatic world out of which they had emerged they carried with them a skepticism as to the possibilities of permanent and peaceful coexistence of rival forces. Easily persuaded of their own doctrinaire ‘rightness,’ they insisted on the submission or destruction of all competing power.
The accuracy of Kennan’s profile is irrelevant here; what is important is how the attributes assigned to the enemy should be interpreted as ideated constructs intended to both justify and mythologize the conflict between the Self and Nemesis. Kennan emphasizes the foreignness of the Russian psyche in terms of its unwillingness to compromise or share power. Unlike the ideal of reasoned debate and civil discourse held as counterpoint, Stalin and his allies are portrayed as unreasonable and implacably determined to reign alone over a subjugated world. Peaceful coexistence, as Hoover would himself write throughout his career, was impossible.
To the American mind, the notion that the United States would be “dying” would likely have been a particularly offensive one, utterly antithetical to the projection of strength supported by the booming postwar economy. Hoover declares it “an incontestable fact that our country, the symbol of the free world, is the ultimate, priceless goal of international communism. The leaders of international communism have vowed to achieve world domination. This cannot be until the Red flag is flown over the United States” (1960). This image is a powerful one, evoking nothing less than conquest—justified by the hostility and incorrigibility of “dying capitalism,” as perceived by Kennan’s version of Soviet psychology.
By 1946, the second Red Scare was poised to begin. Earlier in 1944, Hoover expressed the transition from one national archenemy to another: “The Fascists and Nazis were not the only menace to our internal security. To their forces must be added the American Communists with their godless, truthless philosophy of life. They are against the America our forefathers fought and died for; they are against the established freedoms of America. They pose behind a dozen fronts; they have endeavored to infiltrate practically every stratum of life.” What was the perceived vector of the communist disease? What were its symptoms? How was the virus identified and diagnosed?
Hoover writes: “What is important is the claims of communists themselves that for every party member there are ten others ready, willing, and able to do the party’s work. Herein lays the greatest menace of communism. For there are the people who infiltrate and corrupt various spheres of American life. So rather than the size of the Communist Party, the way to weigh its true importance is by testing its influence, its ability to infiltrate” (1947). Like many pathogens, communism’s threat is measured in terms of how contagious it is, how able to spread and how difficult to contain.
Hoover goes on to list the channels of infiltration used by American Communists to pursue their agenda, including: correspondence campaigns, radio, motion pictures, labor unions, foreign language groups, government, and various front organizations. Obviously, Hoover considered labor unions to be especially vulnerable: “The communist tactic of infiltrating labor unions stems from the earliest teachings of Marx, which have been reiterated by party spokesmen down through the years. They resort to all means to gain their point and often succeed in penetrating and literally taking over labor unions before the rank and file members are aware of what has occurred.”
Again the underlying metaphor is implied: for a body may become infected without conscious awareness of it, at least until the symptoms show themselves. In some cases, this manifestation comes too late—as in the case of cancers, for example, which can proliferate undetected until more advanced stages. Hoover did not seem to believe this to be the case with domestic communism; throughout his writings, there is a concrete sense that the threat can be successfully checked provided the appropriate measures are taken. McCarthy, in contrast, behaved as if any delay could prove fatal to American society.
In essence, America had been turned on itself. Storytellers like Hoover and McCarthy had created too perfect a virus, too frightening a nemesis. In its global form, communism was a worthy opponent. George Kennan writes: “Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this…the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear” (1947).
In many ways, as a global threat, communism provoked a certain terrifying awe; it was a godless machine bent on world domination, devouring one war-torn country after another. It was nothing less than a dragon, the perfect match for the gleaming knight of liberty. Such a legendary struggle necessitated legendary actors, and the postwar United States was more than willing to play the required role. Unlike the former empires of Western Europe, its mainland had escaped unscathed by the ravages of war…but the country had notescaped entirely unsullied.
One cannot, especially in retrospect, underestimate the extent to which the American people believed that a nuclear war was possible or even inevitable. The fear that a war between superpowers would extend to every corner of the civilized world was only exaggerated by the idea that this war would not only be fought with soldiers—men who could be fought back—but with forces comparable to those that fueled the sun. Simply put, everything was at stake. Mass media (including newspapers, radio, television, and Hollywood) by the 1950s had successfully penetrated the public psyche (and would during the Vietnam War less than 20 years later prove pivotal in shaping opinion).
This point is not to be overlooked. McCarthy was able to commandeer the headlines, the stark and undeniable print that conveyed the raw message like a shot through a pane of glass. It could spread like wildfire in the homes and workplaces of countless Americans, garnering publicity irrespective of whether the newspaper in question was pro or ant-McCarthy. In front of the gathered masses, McCarthy’s “ability to sway them won him the reputation of being a demagogue, but that ability had less to do with McCarthy than with McCarthyism…McCarthy declared (one can imagine him pounding the podium, as he often did) that the Democrats seemed unaware that America was at war with communism” (185). As a competent orator, McCarthy could become more than simply a man; he could become a force, a mouthpiece for the fears of a nation confronted with a soulless enemy.
By turning that terrible eye on the people, he had isolated himself and those closest to him. More importantly, however, he had misjudged how far the American people were willing to go in support of his war against domestic communists. The few genuine victories he was able to claim were far outstripped by the scope of his unchecked aggression—by McCarthyism. J. Edgar Hoover, likely making a reference to McCarthyism, would later have occasion to write: “We must be careful whom we call communists. We must be certain of our facts. Great damage can be done by reckless accusations, false charges, and the spreading of false rumors” (1969). Hoover approached the war with a pathologist’s eye; McCarthy with the frenetic, melodramatic fervor of a man prepared to sacrifice the patient in an effort to destroy the disease.
Hoover writes, “We have a great heritage of freedom to protect. The times call for courage, resolution, and integrity, not cleverness, expediency or love of soft living. No man has a right to a ‘time out,’ ‘a leave of absence’—all must be on the front lines” (1967). This great heritage is a symbolic representation of historical continuity projected into a perpetual future. For so long as the people continue to invest in the narrative that bridges past, present, and future, the self-identity of the collective stands supported by the loci that serve to generate and disseminate the stories that compose this narrative.
Stories told by men like McCarthy are jarring and seemingly discordant, but they are part of the greater narrative all the same, surfaced from underlying currents of ideology that define identity in terms of conflict, antagonism, and the fear of an enemy within. Hoover could just as easily have declared that all must always be on the front lines. Without an idealized nemesis capable of threatening, challenging, and interactively structuring collective self-identity, the stories that express and support this identity wither and fade into obscurity.
Strength must be measured against what it can affect, and to what degree; the strength and numinosity of an ideological matrix must similarly be measured against both internal and external opposition. National ideological matrices are measured in terms of their ability to bring and hold together individual members of a collective.