“This Quarter” Philip Rahv, Partisan Review, Summer 1939, Vol. 6, No. 4, Pt2.

Part II:

Now Rahv turns to the reasons for the decline in American literary success, and begins with the pressure of the Left on contemporary writers:

“For a long time now, it has been held almost as an axiom by left critics that in entering the political world the artist improves both his mind and his art. The reverse of this was held to be true by the conservatives, so that in the controversy about “proletarian literature” that raged in the early ‘thirties they uniformly urged artists to shun politics and retain their aesthetic purity. But no, paradoxically enough, it turns out that it is precisely politics which has become the medium of a new, of an unprecedented affiliation of literature to ideas historically transcended  generations ago and highly congenial to the present order of things.

“Obviously in this era, politics has played a contradictory role on the literary scene. If at first it drew the literary imagination closer to social reality, enabling it to assimilate a series of  fresh phenomena, it is now, conversely, despoiling this imagination and provoking its self-destructive impulses.

Rahv goes on to criticise Hemingway’s ‘silly’ The Fifth Column; Louis Aragon for writing novels about WWI, at the same time as he propagandises  preparedness for the  war that is coming; Aragon is also defending the French Empire as well as Stalin’s ‘totalitarian’ state. Rahv is even more wrought up about Malraux’s Man’s Hope. “It should be recognised, by even the most obtuse for what it is — an invention out of whole cloth. This glamour novel of the People’s Front is a work of empty heroics, devoid of a single real character. A cleverly composed pamphlet in the guise of objective fiction, its consummate rhetoric serves only to sell an illusion. And the lesson of all this is not that people were mistaken to interest themselves in social causes and or that they should stay out of politics. The lesson, rather, is that politics, qua politics, as the ivory tower qua the ivory tower, is neither good nor bad for literature. But they become meaningful insofar as they are modalities that each historic situation fills with its own content, with its own time-spirit. “

Rahv is clear that the politics have a place in the writing, but that, “The real question is  more specific: what is the author actually doing in politics?  What is he doing with it, and what is it doing to him?  How does his political faith affect him as a craftsman, what influence does it exercise on the moral qualities and on the sensibility of his work?”

“Yet in our time, literature, in its characteristic  aspects, is no longer at liberty to decide for itself whether to spurn or to enter politics. For better or worse, politics is shaping its destiny. As the chronic crisis of capitalism extorts from every human being greater and greater sacrifices of the will, consciousness and individuality, depriving people of whatever  independence they may have had and of whatever power was their’s to act upon and determine their own lot the literary themes of private life lose more and more the interest and significance they once possessed.”

And here Rahv’s argument resonates, it seems to me, with the current high-flying genre of memoir and of non-fiction more  generally. A fashion that eschews much of what had been political in the 1960s and post 1968 years for data, factoids, and a miserable picture of the ‘body’ as the substitute for critical thinking.

He goes on to criticise a new ‘gentility’ in American writing, ‘this so-called”rediscovery of our democratic past”, which is, if not a futile effort to solve the problems of today with the solutions of the past?… “We are now entering an epoch in which thought images history in the reverse.  Its most voluble oracles, in art and in politics alike, have forgotten or are unable to learn that the grand and vital truths of of the past are often transformed into the superstitions, into the lemurs and vampires of the present.”

Rahv now rises to the meta-voice of the writer:  “To speak of modern literature is to speak of that peculiar grouping, the intelligentsia, to whom it belongs. The intelligentsia too, is a modern product, created by the drastic division of labor that prevails under capitalism.” The argument Rahv presents here is that the  intelligentsia’s concern with aesthetics, private emotion, even “the bent towards the obscure and the morbid,” — these qualities are not derived from a limitless  confidence that the artist has in himself, but from the group-ethos, from the proud self-imposed exile isolation of a cultivated minority. And these French writers created a whole range of what might be called idealised negations of the society they scorned.”

Rahv is really good at showing a genealogy of why and how the situation in writing is, in the summer of 1939, without any truly revolutionary tendency in writing. Yet….

“The dissident artist, if he understands the extremity of the age and the voices what it tries to stifle, will thus be saved from the sterility and delivered from its corruption. Instead of deceiving himself and others by playing with the bureaucratised visions of the shining cities of the future or else by turning his  art into a shrine for things that are dead and gone, he would be faithful to the metamorphosis of the present. And every metamorphosis, it has been said, “Is partly a swan song and partly a prelude to a great new poem.”

Next Week: Writers on Their Situation.





“This Quarter” Philip Rahv, Partisan Review, Summer 1939, Vol. 6, No. 4, Pt1

Like other posts about the “This Quarter” essays, this one will be in two parts.  Part I:

The quarterly reports on the state of literature and politics served to orientate the reader to the pieces that shape the issue at hand. This issue’s central topic is the state of American writing as the summer of 1939 demands an editorial reckoning with the tensions of 1939. This time it falls to Philip Rahv to make the case for the issue, and he does it with his usual fierce analysis. I have discussed Rahv in a number of other posts, and you can find them in the archive of this blog.

philip Rahv-16 Philip Rahv

His name for the essay is “Twilight of the Thirties,” echoing Nietzsche and Wagner and the Germanic voice.
Rahv begins by describing the way in which the current literary situation reflects the rise of the ‘democratic’ at the cost of the ‘revolutionary’ current in literature. He takes the example of Anton Zweig, whose The Case of Sergeant Grischa, narrated the trauma and losses of the First World War. But in an interview in the New York Post, Zweig ‘repudiated’ his novel and declared in favour of ‘democratic’ literature.  Rahv sees this as a function of Zweig being drawn into a general tendency to turn down the burner on revolutionary polemical satiric and anti-popular front works.

th.arnold Zweig Anton Zweig

“Only a few years ago such a revolting about face by a writer of Zweig’s stature would have been universally cited as a piece of  demented reaction. In this retrograde period, however, the majority of writers who formerly  would have challenged Zweig are actually of one mind with him. For aren’t they all, nowadays, true-blue democrats together?  Don’t they assemble at literary congresses — such as the recent PEN Congress and American Writers Congress — where the war drive is spiritually organized, where celebrities of such diverse and unequal talents as Thomas Mann and Dorothy Parker, Jules Romains, and Dorothy Thompson, parading their loyalty to the status quo, solemnly engage themselves to provide the coming world-conflict with the required cultural unction and humanity appeal.”

SO, Rahv goes on to say, that Zweig’s remark is one of the symptoms of the “expression of the present demoralised condition of letters.”

“As the tide of patriotism and democratic eloquence rises, one observes an ebb of creative energy and a rapid decline of standards in all spheres of the intellect and of the imagination.”  The depictions of WWI were indeed more powerful because they showed the terror and horror and senselessness of it. Now, it seems that everything is coated with a kind of cowardly irreality.

And the ‘younger generation’ has ceased to produce exciting new things. “no avant-garde movement exists any longer, and he goes on,

“For more than a hundred years literature , on a world scale, was in the throes of a constant inner revolution, was the arena of uninterrupted rebellions and counter-rebellions, was incessantly reviewing itself both in substance and in form. But at present it seems as if this magnificent process is drawing to a close.”

The world that Rahv had thought would result from the knowledge gained from WWI, and from the Russian Revolution, would be made with fewer costs, until the Moscow Trials, the Popular Front, and Fascism twisted it all into errors and lies.

“Only one idea promised to re-vitalise literary expression is this decade. It was the idea  of the social revolution in its specific application to culture, and it gave rise to a radical school of creative writing and to a Marxist literary criticism. This movement, however, turned into its very opposite after a brief span of life that was as blundering as it was exciting. From the start it was held in pawn by the Stalinists. AT first devised for revolutionary ends, it has now been converted into a means of forcing literature into the harness of the old society. This movement has pulled a great many writers into the orbit of politics. But this only means that a great many writers who were previously politically indifferent, and hence relatively immune to certain rabid notions, have been led to accept and even to idealise bourgeois values at the same time as catchwords of “progress ” and “democracy” delude them into imagining themselves to be still radicals. Yet having dedicated themselves to society, society rededicates itself to them. Never have the literary lions of the “left-wing” enjoyed such lavish hospitality from the world at large as at present, never have they received such bounties, such whole-hearted recognition, from the very powers they profess to abhor. As for those writers who refuse to accompany the Comintern on its travels from one pole of the class struggle to the other, their works are placed on the expurgatory index and their persons committed to Satan. And The New Masses these days denounces John Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson as “enemies of the people” in the same issue in which Hollywood is saluted as a centre of culture.

Rahv has set the scene now for what will have to be his “lesson about politics to literature to be from this experience.”

come back next week to read  part II.