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.