Poems by Elizabeth Bishop

We have met Elizabeth Bishop before: she was one of the Vassar Intellectuals, a year behind Mary McCarthy, ( post on this blog’s archive, December 11, 2016). When McCarthy published The Group, Elizabeth Bishop was considered by some of the Vassar Girls to have been portrayed by McCarthy as ‘Lakey’ and her lover, ‘Lota’ as Lakey’s lover, the Baroness. McCarthy protested that this wasn’t the case in a letter to Bishop, but couldn’t entirely exculpate herself from the charge. This was late in the 1970s and I expect that neither of them were overly engaged in the quarrel at this point. (Unlike Lillian Hellman, who cared very much about how her quarrel with McCarthy would end, even after McCarthy had died.).

bishop young and sweet

Lota
Elizabeth & Lota

But Bishop is better known to many as one of the great poets of the ‘middle generation’ of Modernism – along with Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell, with Delmore Schwartz serving as a sometime harbinger and sometime participant.  Bishop was one who ‘ran with the boys’, as it were, and won recognition as a ‘poet’s poet’ as well as public popularity. She was a Pulitzer Prize winner in the 1950s, and the winner of a National Book Award in 1970, and received lots of other honours and Fellowships.

The poems she contributed to  Partisan Review for the August-September, 1938 issue are easy and difficult. And in the context of that summer of the advance of European fascism, they are remarkably cool and removed from the scene, very different from the earlier summer poems we looked at a few months ago, by Julian Symons and Derek Savage (see blog post, 18 August, 2017), attentive as they are to  the Englishness of the contemporary crisis. Bishop is a poet without borders, a woman who made her homes in both North and South America, and who was as at home in Paris as she was corresponding with Robert Lowell in his various geographies of madness:

I find her very hard to read because she hides so much of what she means us to know. I sometimes think she is just testing us, trying us out as readers instead of welcoming us in. Bishop asserts in “The Unbeliever” her own belief, that belief must always ground unbelief.  The unbeliever is stuck on the top of this mast of the sail, not moving, not daring… he sleeps at the top of his mast, with this eyes closed tight.  At the end we see the revenge of belief on the unbeliever:”I must not fall./The spangled sea below wants me to fall./It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”

It makes sense this summer of 1938 — but it remains a cold comfort.

I: The Unbeliever

He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”

 II: Quai d’Orleans —
II:screen-shot-2014-01-12-at-11-14-31-am
Clive James’s remarks on this poem open up for us the way the easy is difficult in her poems. He writes:

” The tone at its lowest is usually comfortably at a level where the prosaic and intellectually platitudinous are twisted towards poeticized quiddities by professionally executed changes of direction. These closing lines from ‘Quai d’Orléans’, which cap a series of brilliantly exploited observations on water-lights and leaves, illustrate the point.

We stand as still as stones to watch
the leaves and ripples
while light and nervous water hold
their interview.
‘If what we see could forget us half as easily,’
I want to tell you,
‘as it does itself — but for life we’ll not be rid
of the leaves’ fossils.’

Thus with a gasp and a quick flurry of soul-searching does the poem haul itself onto the metaphysical plateau, making the exterior interior at the price of abandoning the judicious — and genuinely suggestive — language that places ‘nervous’ just so as to concentrate the effects of trembling the poem has already established, and places ‘interview’ to clinch the consistently employed vocabulary of seeing.”

The story behind this poem is told by Susan McCabe:

“Bishop’s second and last trip to France in 1937 became linked with a horrifying car accident involving her friend Margaret Miller.  Bishop had been traveling in Burgundy with Louise Crane (the driver) and Miller when they were forced off the road.  As a result of the accident, Margaret lost her arm.  This dismemberment caused Bishop major psychological grief (she would try to write a poem from the point of the view of the arm for many years): her guilt (unwarranted as it was) perhaps made the lost arm synechdochal for Bishop’s earlier traumas of loss (and connection), in particular her loss of her mother to madness.  Rimbaud himself would have a leg amputated because of infection, long after he stopped writing poetry in a silence echoing Bishop’s claim that she wrote her best poetry by not writing it.  The threat to bodily integrity because of psychic pain becomes a significant undercurrent in Bishop’s work.  She records some of the shock she experienced in the car accident in “Quai d’Orleans”— “we stand as still as stones” – along with the desire to forget and to be forgot:

“If what we see could forget us half as easily,”
I want to tell you,
“as it does itself—but for life we’ll not be rid
of the leaves’ fossils.”

Marxism in Our Time — Victor Serge

serge  Victor Serge was my guide through the history of the  revolutionary movements of the first half of the twentieth century.  He was a novelist and historian of the Russian Revolution, a memoirist of Boshevism and Stalinism, and a searching poet.  I first read Serge when I was in my early twenties, and I was struck by how different his voice was from the often anxious, often sententious Bolsheviks.  Serge’s fluent writer’s voice, never appears to be reaching after the rules of revolution, but always seems to be achieving the sensibility of revolutionary aspiration and idealism, even when it faces unwelcome truths and the destruction of hopes.

Something about his having started out as an Anarchist and a poet made me consider him a Bohemian as well as Bolshevik, and it added to his posthumous allure.  What secured his place was that while he was a Bolshevik, he became an active member of the Left Opposition, which Trotsky led as a party faction 1923 -7. Nonetheless, Serge had also been a severe critic of the Red Army’s supression of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921,when the Red Army had been led by Trotsky. In other words, Serge was capable of the critical thinking that can elude those who fear articulating their disagreements in order to maintain party unity.

Here in this long summer of 1938, Victor Serge writes a short but important essay about Marxism, and the essay’s clarity about what Marxism is at that moment makes the reader attend to its reality rather than to the position planks that were filling up the new world of Stalinism, and making noise where there had been debate and rules where there had been possibilities.

Perhaps most important to Serge’s arguments is his conviction that Marxism is not static but moving, shape shifting and as he writes, “gone through many metamorphoses.”  The  urge to place Marxist theory and practice under the lock and key of atrophied notions of ‘science’ is addressed by Serge’s interest not in the movement’s defeats, but rather, in the strength of capital’s fear of it: “The confused but energetic class-consciousness of the last defenders of capitalism, however, sees in Marxism its most dangerous spiritual and social enemy.”   Serge is what we might call an ecumenical Marxist: “Almost all workers’ movements which have won any appreciable power have been inspired by Marxism.”

From the mess of 1938, Serge is able to address both the innocent bystanders in New York and the bewildered old Bolsheviks in Moscow without reaching for a statement that will explain the rightness and wrongness of either or both.  What is significant is that even when Capitalism surrounded the working class in 1914,

“The workers showed themselves prisoners of the capitalism they fought even as they adapted themselves to it. But it was a Marxist part which, in the chaotic currents of the Russian Revolution, knew how to disentangle the main lines of force, to orient itself constantly according to the highest interests of the workers, to make itself, in the truest sense of the word the midwife of a new world. It is true that German Marxism in its two forms — Social Democratic and Communist –showed itself impotent before the Nazi offensive. Along with the degeneration of the Bolshevism, this is without question, let us note in passing, the greatest defeat that Marxism has ever suffered. Nonetheless, Marxism continues to mount the ladder of world history. While irreconcilable oppositionists are persecuted and exterminated by Stalinism, the Austrian Socialists carry o. struggle, desperate but heroic, which saves them from demoralisation; the Socialist miners of Asturias in ’34 deal a set-back to Spanish fascism. It would be absurd to isolate Marxist thought from these social realities. EVEN more than it is a scientific doctrine, Marxism is an historic fact. 

This remarkably straightforward presentation of Marxism — in its successes and in its limitations — gives voice to an idea of social change that doesn’t exist as an idealisation or as a fait accompli. Instead .it is a process, whose concepts and practices are on-going. “Science,” Serge writes, “is never ‘finished’; rather it is always completing itself. Can science be anything except a process of continual self-revision, an increasing quest for a closer approach to the truth. 

Serge is clear that the categories of the  knowledge disciplines have been change through Marxism. “We are in debt to it for a renewing , a broadening of our consciousness.”  And as he looks at the history of Marxism in his time, Serge can make sense of its errors and failures in a dialectical exchange with its power and intellectual range.

  1. The Marxism of the imperialist epoch was split. It was nationalistic and counterrevolutionary in the countries where it had been reformist; it was revolutionary internationalist in Russia the only country in which the foundering of an ancient regime forced the proletariat to carry out completely its historic mission.
  2. The Marxism of the Russian Revolution was at first ardently internationalist and libertarian; but because of the state of siege, it soon became more and more authoritarian and intolerant.
  3. The Marxism of the decadence of Bolshevism — that is to say, that of the bureaucratic caste which has evicted the  working class from power — is totalitarian, despotic, amoral, and opportunist. It ends up in the strangest and most revolting negations of itself.

So Serge is able to see social consciousness doesn’t escape the effect of the realities it expresses, which it illuminates and which it tries to surmount. He ends the piece with another piece of reality: “IS it necessary to emphasise again that the confused, distorted and bloody Marxism of the gunmen of Moscow — is not Marxism? That it negates, belies, and paralyses itself? 

As Summer draws to a close in 1938, Serge asserts, “The class struggle goes on. For all the dictators’ replastering, we hear the framework of the old social edifice cracking. Marxism will go through many vicissitudes of fortune, perhaps even eclipses. Its power, conditioned by the course of history, nonetheless appears to be inexhaustible. For its base is knowledge integrated with the necessity for revolution.  Its the best piece of summer, 1938, because it is hopeful and also realistic.

Serge was a poet of hope as well. As a member of the Left Opposition, Serge was arrested and imprisoned in 1933. He was sent to the remote city of Orenberg in the Ural Mountains. Most of the Left Opposition that were arrested were executed but as a result of protests made by leading politicians in France, Belgium and Spain, Serge was kept alive. When he was released and allowed to return to Moscow, the officials would not let him take his manuscripts. The poems he wrote in the 1930s are political, tender, and attempt to scale the cosmos: here is one example, written in exile, in 1934.

TRUST

I’ve seen the steppe turn green and the child grow; my eyes meet the human gaze

of my good old dog Toby, who trusts me.

The azure touches the earth, we breathe in the sky.

Red cows graze under clouds of glory,

and from afar the slim Kirgiz woman who tends them

seems released from all misery.

Setting sun, here are our breasts, take them!

Here are our bodies that you fill with radiance,

here we are washed,

purified,

liberated,

pacified,

at the point where river, plain, and sky touch,

Nothing is forgotten, nothing is lost, we are faithful,

faithfully men, men faithful to men

regardless of the moment, the risk, the burden, the pain,

the hate,

faithful and trusting.

My son, my tall son, we are going to cleave the water with slow strokes —

let’s trust in the river pierced by sunbeams,

trust in these waters drunk by our brothers, the drowned.

Trust in the frail, supple muscles of the child

who dives from the steep bank and then cries out:

“O father, it’s terrible and good, I’m touching bottom,

the light is mixed with darkness and its quivering, quivering….”

Grace of the slender body darting through the air, through the water,

trust with eyes closed, trust with eyes open.

What could be more parabolic than this flight of birds?

My mind follows it, just as lively, just as sure,

an arrow through abstract space,

laden with moving images by all that was,

ethereal and prodigal,

offering the future many possible futures.

the scarab sleeps on the wild rose,

our shadows scared off the tadpoles in the pond,

a magnificent, peaceful day and the earth goes on

carrying off days, nights, dawns, evenings,

tropics, poles, deserts,

cities,

and our thoughts,

our common journey through the infinite,

the eternal,

the eyes,

toward the constellation of Hercules, itself swept along

by such great floods of stars that all night fades —

defeat swept away.

.

VictorSerge
Victor Serge  1890-1947

 

 

 

 

 

Marxism in Our Time — Victor Serge

serge  Victor Serge was my guide through the history of the  revolutionary movements of the first half of the twentieth century.  He was a novelist and historian of the Russian Revolution, a memoirist of Boshevism and Stalinism, and a searching poet.  I first read Serge when I was in my early twenties, and I was struck by how different his voice was from the often anxious, often sententious Bolsheviks.  Serge’s fluent writer’s voice, never appears to be reaching after the rules of revolution, but always seems to be achieving the sensibility of revolutionary aspiration and idealism, even when it faces unwelcome truths and the destruction of hopes.

Something about his having started out as an Anarchist and a poet made me consider him a Bohemian as well as Bolshevik, and it added to his posthumous allure.  What secured his place was that while he was a Bolshevik, he became an active member of the Left Opposition, which Trotsky led as a party faction 1923 -7. Nonetheless, Serge had also been a severe critic of the Red Army’s supression of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921,when the Red Army had been led by Trotsky. In other words, Serge was capable of the critical thinking that can elude those who fear articulating their disagreements in order to maintain party unity.

Here in this long summer of 1938, Victor Serge writes a short but important essay about Marxism, and the essay’s clarity about what Marxism is at that moment makes the reader attend to its reality rather than to the position planks that were filling up the new world of Stalinism, and making noise where there had been debate and rules where there had been possibilities.

Perhaps most important to Serge’s arguments is his conviction that Marxism is not static but moving, shape shifting and as he writes, “gone through many metamorphoses.”  The  urge to place Marxist theory and practice under the lock and key of atrophied notions of ‘science’ is addressed by Serge’s interest not in the movement’s defeats, but rather, in the strength of capital’s fear of it: “The confused but energetic class-consciousness of the last defenders of capitalism, however, sees in Marxism its most dangerous spiritual and social enemy.”   Serge is what we might call an ecumenical Marxist: “Almost all workers’ movements which have won any appreciable power have been inspired by Marxism.”

From the mess of 1938, Serge is able to address both the innocent bystanders in New York and the bewildered old Bolsheviks in Moscow without reaching for a statement that will explain the rightness and wrongness of either or both.  What is significant is that even when Capitalism surrounded the working class in 1914,

“The workers showed themselves prisoners of the capitalism they fought even as they adapted themselves to it. But it was a Marxist part which, in the chaotic currents of the Russian Revolution, knew how to disentangle the main lines of force, to orient itself constantly according to the highest interests of the workers, to make itself, in the truest sense of the word the midwife of a new world. It is true that German Marxism in its two forms — Social Democratic and Communist –showed itself impotent before the Nazi offensive. Along with the degeneration of the Bolshevism, this is without question, let us note in passing, the greatest defeat that Marxism has ever suffered. Nonetheless, Marxism continues to mount the ladder of world history. While irreconcilable oppositionists are persecuted and exterminated by Stalinism, the Austrian Socialists carry o. struggle, desperate but heroic, which saves them from demoralisation; the Socialist miners of Asturias in ’34 deal a set-back to Spanish fascism. It would be absurd to isolate Marxist thought from these social realities. EVEN more than it is a scientific doctrine, Marxism is an historic fact. 

This remarkably straightforward presentation of Marxism — in its successes and in its limitations — gives voice to an idea of social change that doesn’t exist as an idealisation or as a fait accompli. Instead .it is a process, whose concepts and practices are on-going. “Science,” Serge writes, “is never ‘finished’; rather it is always completing itself. Can science be anything except a process of continual self-revision, an increasing quest for a closer approach to the truth. 

Serge is clear that the categories of the  knowledge disciplines have been change through Marxism. “We are in debt to it for a renewing , a broadening of our consciousness.”  And as he looks at the history of Marxism in his time, Serge can make sense of its errors and failures in a dialectical exchange with its power and intellectual range.

  1. The Marxism of the imperialist epoch was split. It was nationalistic and counterrevolutionary in the countries where it had been reformist; it was revolutionary internationalist in Russia the only country in which the foundering of an ancient regime forced the proletariat to carry out completely its historic mission.
  2. The Marxism of the Russian Revolution was at first ardently internationalist and libertarian; but because of the state of siege, it soon became more and more authoritarian and intolerant.
  3. The Marxism of the decadence of Bolshevism — that is to say, that of the bureaucratic caste which has evicted the  working class from power — is totalitarian, despotic, amoral, and opportunist. It ends up in the strangest and most revolting negations of itself.

So Serge is able to see social consciousness doesn’t escape the effect of the realities it expresses, which it illuminates and which it tries to surmount. He ends the piece with another piece of reality: “IS it necessary to emphasise again that the confused, distorted and bloody Marxism of the gunmen of Moscow — is not Marxism? That it negates, belies, and paralyses itself? 

As Summer draws to a close in 1938, Serge asserts, “The class struggle goes on. For all the dictators’ replastering, we hear the framework of the old social edifice cracking. Marxism will go through many vicissitudes of fortune, perhaps even eclipses. Its power, conditioned by the course of history, nonetheless appears to be inexhaustible. For its base is knowledge integrated with the necessity for revolution.  Its the best piece of summer, 1938, because it is hopeful and also realistic.

Serge was a poet of hope as well. As a member of the Left Opposition, Serge was arrested and imprisoned in 1933. He was sent to the remote city of Orenberg in the Ural Mountains. Most of the Left Opposition that were arrested were executed but as a result of protests made by leading politicians in France, Belgium and Spain, Serge was kept alive. When he was released and allowed to return to Moscow, the officials would not let him take his manuscripts. The poems he wrote in the 1930s are political, tender, and attempt to scale the cosmos: here is one example, written in exile, in 1934.

TRUST

I’ve seen the steppe turn green and the child grow; my eyes meet the human gaze

of my good old dog Toby, who trusts me.

The azure touches the earth, we breathe in the sky.

Red cows graze under clouds of glory,

and from afar the slim Kirgiz woman who tends them

seems released from all misery.

Setting sun, here are our breasts, take them!

Here are our bodies that you fill with radiance,

here we are washed,

purified,

liberated,

pacified,

at the point where river, plain, and sky touch,

Nothing is forgotten, nothing is lost, we are faithful,

faithfully men, men faithful to men

regardless of the moment, the risk, the burden, the pain,

the hate,

faithful and trusting.

My son, my tall son, we are going to cleave the water with slow strokes —

let’s trust in the river pierced by sunbeams,

trust in these waters drunk by our brothers, the drowned.

Trust in the frail, supple muscles of the child

who dives from the steep bank and then cries out:

“O father, it’s terrible and good, I’m touching bottom,

the light is mixed with darkness and its quivering, quivering….”

Grace of the slender body darting through the air, through the water,

trust with eyes closed, trust with eyes open.

What could be more parabolic than this flight of birds?

My mind follows it, just as lively, just as sure,

an arrow through abstract space,

laden with moving images by all that was,

ethereal and prodigal,

offering the future many possible futures.

the scarab sleeps on the wild rose,

our shadows scared off the tadpoles in the pond,

a magnificent, peaceful day and the earth goes on

carrying off days, nights, dawns, evenings,

tropics, poles, deserts,

cities,

and our thoughts,

our common journey through the infinite,

the eternal,

the eyes,

toward the constellation of Hercules, itself swept along

by such great floods of stars that all night fades —

defeat swept away.

.

VictorSerge
Victor Serge  1890-1947

 

 

 

 

 

James Burnham…. on William Troy ….on Thomas Mann..

So far, if you have been a reader of this blog, you will have heard much about Trotsky, and some about Stalin, but you haven’t heard anything about James Burnham or the Socialist Workers Party USA– it doesn’t seem that our Partisans spent that much time in the Trotskyist political parties. Dwight McDonald was a member for a while, Dupee stayed with the Stalinists through the Moscow Trials, others watched and waited, and made their Modernism their politics.  The history of the factions and sub-factions and groupings of the Trotskyist movement is probably the focus of other blogs, but one of the founding members of the American Socialist Workers Party, James Burnham, turns up now in these summer months and takes up the discussion of Thomas Mann initiated earlier in 1938 by William Troy.

James Burnham

James Burnham was another boy from Chicago, excited by and studying the philosophical currents of the 1930s. He came from an upper middle class background, his British father had been an executive of the Burlington Railroad, and James Burnham went to Princeton and to Oxford before joining the faculty at New York University. He mixed with New York Society, and Alan Wald writes that he would “attend political committee meetings in a tuxedo because he had just come from or was en route to cocktails at the Rockefellers or the home of some other wealthy family with whom he was friends.”

If you ever had a connection– real or imagined —  to the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s or the 1960s and 1970s — you will no doubt know about Burnham as a turn-coat who later

539139558
1970, Burnham to left of Buckley

became a member of the William Buckley National Review conservative grouping.  The American SWP was founded at the end of 1937, and the Secretariat of the SWP was made up of Max Shachtman, James Cannon, and James Burnham. I knew Burnham’s name that way, and not much about him except that he was involved in the  factionalism that divided the SWP, by 1940, between Max Shactman and James Burnham on one side,  and James Cannon on the other.

Burnham may have been a toff, and an academic, but he was a dedicated SWP theorist and writer who had no trouble turning from academic conventions to political ones. And he had also spent time as a co-editor of the journal Symposium, which had aimed to address cultural questions within a political context…. When the SWP split in 1940, Burnham’s position was that the Soviet Union should not be supported in the war; that it has become a ‘degenerated workers’ state’.   WIKIPEDIA: ” In political theory, a degenerated workers’ state is a socialist state in which direct working class control of production has given way to control by a bureaucratic clique. The term was developed by Leon Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed and in other works.  In May 1940, he resigned from the SWP, along with Shachtman and their supporters. He went on, in the War,  to work for the propaganda section of the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA…

Now, back to 1938 and Burnham on Troy on Mann. Burnham takes on the method used by Troy by arguing that Troy’s use of ‘myth’ as the organising structure of analysis threatens to overtake and in fact, suggests that it is the ONLY method for analysis.  To use this idea, an anthropological one, “as alone legitimate is to be guilty of the usual and perennial Platonic fallacy of hypostatizing a method into an Absolute.”  His criticism arises from within the Trotskyist convention of ‘altering the question’ that we have looked at in an earlier post: Are we  simply unable to learn that the legitimacy of any method  is decided by the problems we are trying to solve, the purposes to which we hold, and the efficacy of the method in handling the  subject-matters in relation to those problems and  purposes?” 

The argument that Troy makes may be true, and certainly works,  Burnhan writes, but there are equally coherent and persuasive ones that can be brought to bear through the methods developed in psychoanalysis and  sociology.  His inference is that the difference between offering a set of coherent analyses along different ‘Absolutes’ is that between interpretation that reiterates the same point, and analyses that begin with the questions that need to be asked now.  It is a shot across the bow at Troy’s system, and it is a reminder of the urgency of the political and cultural questions of the moment at hand.

Even more troublesome, Burnham argues that Troy’s ‘myth’ isn’t only an ‘Absolute’; its an irresponsible one, disconnected from reality because, as Troy argues it, it exists in the realm of the pure imagination:

“Chucked overboard is all centuries-assembled baggage of laboratory and telescope, of carefully elaborated and ever-revised hypotheses, of plans rationally analysed and predictions precisely made and verified, of theories called ever to account, publicly before the eyes of all who wish to see, by the marshalled evidence. From this Troy beckons us once more to  re-baptizing it as Myth — the dark religion of the blood.”

I love this piece… whatever Burnham turned into later on, he hits pay dirt with the links he sets up and he re-opens the discussion of Mann for Partisan Review’s anti-Stalinist politics and for the journal’s readers.

And then he goes on to surely actualise the context:  “It was in the midst of Mann’s American lecture tour that there took place the third and foulest of the Moscow trials. As he nightly summoned his audiences to join him in aspiration toward Democracy and Truth, not one word of protest, not one suggestion came from him against history’s most degraded and perverted assault on democracy and truth.

A good vindication of Partisan Review’s aesthetics and a good opening for more discussion of Thomas Mann.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

F.W. Dupee “The English Literary Left”

While Partisan Review published poems and stories that belong to the 1930s poetic archive as modernist explorations and ones that aimed to present ‘proletarianised’ poetics of everyday lives of oppression, the most searching and lyrically polemical texts were written by the Auden circle in England.   These poems, however were not particularly  ‘proletarian,’  not entirely Modernist, and only a few of its circle were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The group was comprised of Louis McNiece (1907-1963), C. Day Lewis(1904- 1972)  Steven Spender(1905-1999), and, as Fred Dupee writes in his evaluation of the ‘English Literary Left,’ (Partisan Review, Vol. V, No.3, August-September, 1938), “In the centre of the Auden circle, looking both ways, is W.H. Auden(1907-1973) himself.” 

AudenVanVechten1939
Auden 1939

 

 

Stephen_Spender
Stephen Spender 1933
louis-macneice
Louis MacNeice, 1930s
cecildaylewis
C. Day Lewis.

 

 

They were all men who had been educated at Oxford and they were all linked one way or another, to the Communist Party, some through friendships made at University, some as fellow-travelers; they floated in a literary community of poetry, politics, and cultural privilege. McNeice, for example, had a long friendship with Anthony Blunt, one of the “Cambridge Spies” who had long been Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

This was no clique of CCNY or Columbia Jewish students.

But then, our essayist, F.W. Dupee wasn’t either Jewish or working class — born in Chicago, both he and his father had been graduates of Yale, where he became friends with Dwight Macdonald, and then found his way as a bohemian,  writing, travelling in Mexico, and arriving in New York, to re-start his literary life with Macdonald,  where they had founded a short-lived magazine, The Miscellany. Along the way, he grew closer to the left, as so many did in 1930s New York, London, San Franscisco….and he joined the CPUSA in the mid-1930s, becoming an organiser for the Longshoreman’s Union. He began writing for The New Masses, but when the Moscow Trials started in 1937,  Dupee moved to the Trotskyist Left and soon became an Editor of Partisan Review.

SO what does Dupee do with the “Literary Left” in his essay on the Auden Circle? Well, his argument is dialectical, or maybe its simply divided — the Auden people are very good poets — and they have the distinction or the curse of emerging from an underlying literary tradition “that was aristocratic; it was, moreover, still comparatively  vigorous. And the young English poets glanced back towards that tradition as often as they looked ahead towards any other.”

There is certainly a lot of that in Auden, and his nativism is marked as well. But when you look at poems where Auden borrows most from native tradition — in particular, the ballad stanza — he uses its phatic functions of repetition and rhyme to make them appear distorted because they are concrete and particular;  it’s impossible to avoid the poem’s contemporary redesign as a new architecture: here is an example from “As I walked out one evening…..”

 

……‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

Dupee is proud that American left-wing literature is cleaner and more honest that that of the Auden circle, more ‘proletarianised’: “Politically [the Auden circle] falls short of the specifications for a leftwing group, and in a literary sense they tend to exceed [the Americans]. In fact, the CPUSA, Dupee claims, had a clear field ahead for planting an American proletarian literature, because “it was working in a cultural vacuum.” 

There wasn’t a significant Modernist movement in England, Dupee argues, though there were certainly plenty of fascist enthusiasms in the world of art and literature. It was Left-wing Modernism that England didn’t have to hand; and that meant the 1930s was only partially fuelled by exploratory modernism. So, he writes,

“With its shifting points of view  and its incredible contradictions, the world of the New Poetry seems a veritable fantasia of modern art and ideology. In addition to the task of erecting on English soil the technical machinery of modernist literature, it has had the mission of enlightening  benighted Britain on sex.”

Really?  I’m not convinced that that task has succeeded and its 2017 now, though Freudian mythic method still operates here. Bloomsbury’s affair with Freud has long been blended on the Left with Marxism, and Dupee argues that:

“In England, the belated reformers were faced, not only with a neurotic family life, but with a prostrated society.  Hence they could not be satisfied to derive from the new psychology not merely a literary program and a bohemian ethic. The Freudian perspective was raised to a social gospel, sometimes competing with the historical perspective of Marxism, but more often simply melting into it.”  

This was true again in the 1970s and 1980s, when British intellectuals thought the problem facing Marxism was how to negotiate between psychoanalysis and historical materialism. Here in the 21st century, the problem is vestigial, and is left mostly to literary critics, while Leftists have recovered the position that the problem facing Marxism is how to get rid of capitalism.

Dupee’s analysis of Stephen Spender’s CP poetics makes him a bourgeois liberal linked to Fabian socialism: “The social democracy on which the older Fabians had leaned was now discredited; the new Fabians discovered the  Comintern. And at the same time, of course, the Comintern began to seek out the Fabians [AJ: the program of popular frontism, etc.] English reformism thus acquired what it had badly needed; the tradition of a successful revolution; and Stalinism possessed itself of a respectable facade for its adventures in class collaboration.  For Spender the emergency manoeuvres of the Soviet foreign office became the norms of socialist action; the People’s Front of Spain and France he accepted as full-fledged socialist governments; and the injustices, the tyrannies, the crimes of the Soviet regime were put down as misdemeanours which the new ‘democratic constitution’  would correct.”  

So Spender is a Stalinist, and next to go will be Auden: Dupee characterises his contemporary Auden as a man who has retreated into the psychologism of his fellow-poets, into individualism, and who responds by making a new image — the Healer — which Dupee tells us was a symbol given to him by two German psychiatrists. ” In any case, the Healer is a kind of psychiatric saint or redeemer.”

“It is hardly necessary to point out that the militant period of Auden and Spender corresponded to the years of hope and struggle in the revolutionary movement itself. But as the movement deteriorated, sowing reformist manoeuvres and reaping disasters, so there emerged once more that vast vague Atlantis of idealist illusion on which, so long as it is visible, the intelligentsia will set their hopes.”

As I keep saying, its that summer of 1938…and things are going to get worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trotsky on Art and Politics: A Letter to the Editors of Partisan Review, June 18, 1938

You have been kind enough to invite me to express my views on the state of present-day arts and letters. I do this not without some hesitation. Since my book Literature and Revolution (1923), I have not once returned to the problem of artistic creation and only occasionally have I been able to follow the latest developments in this sphere. I am far from pretending to offer an exhaustive reply. The task of this letter is to correctly pose the question.”

RUStrotsky1
Trotsky

523b45b6f00a8501ca913a84d603ba9e Dwight McDonald

Imagine the buzz around PR.  Trotsky’s letter was written in Coyoacan on June 18, 1938,  then published  in Partisan Review’s August-September issue, Vol.V, No.3. Macdonald had been moving towards Trotskyism since the beginning of the Moscow Trials, and once he had joined Rahv and Phillips on the editorial board of PR, his enthusiasm brought them into  Trotskyist orbit.   Trotsky was living in exile at the estate of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, when Macdonald ask him to write for the journal.   But Macdonald’s enthusiasm wasn’t quite matched by Trotsky’s. In Louis  Menand’s  wry and intelligent sketch in The New Yorker he re-tells the story of Trotsky’s opinion of Dwight:

“Every man has a right to be stupid,” Trotsky is supposed to have said, “but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” It is unclear whether Trotsky ever expressed just this thought in just this way (though it is certainly the kind of thing that Trotsky was accustomed to saying about his antagonists: “stupid” had specific dialectical force in Marxist polemic). But Macdonald treated it as a wound honorably incurred in intellectual combat, and he repeated the remark against himself throughout his life.” ( “BrowBeaten,” Louis Menand, The New Yorker, September 5, 2011).

Nonetheless Trotsky wrote a wonderfully clear and insightful essay on the fortunes of texts in the new regime of Stalinism… instead of commenting on it, I have pasted the letter in this post, courtesy of the Trotsky Internet Library.

The only thing I want to say is that Trotsky’s first sentence, about posing the question correctly was still a common convention in the1970s. With a proliferation of small groups on the left, and the hairsplitting of arguments,I learned that if someone from another group, say the SwP made a point that someone from the IMG didn’t agree with, the strategy was to announce that the way the question was posed was the problem— not the point being made. Then you could make a counter argument that was your point, opening with a question posed that would yield the ‘correct’ way of thinking about it. Many a time was I ambushed by that strategy.

But in this case, Trotsky was right . Here we go

\TEXT:\

You have been kind enough to invite me to express my views on the state of present-day arts and letters. I do this not without some hesitation. Since my book Literature and Revolution (1923), I have not once returned to the problem of artistic creation and only occasionally have I been able to follow the latest developments in this sphere. I am far from pretending to offer an exhaustive reply. The task of this letter is to correctly pose the question.

Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for an harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion. Bourgeois society showed its strength throughout long periods of history in the fact that, combining repression, and encouragement, boycott and flattery, it was able to control and assimilate every “rebel” movement in art and raise it to the level of official “recognition.” But each time this “recognition” betokened, when all is said and done, the approach of trouble. It was then that from the left wing of the academic school or below it – i.e. from the ranks of new generation of bohemian artists – a fresher revolt would surge up to attain in its turn, after a decent interval, the steps of the academy. Through these stages passed classicism, romanticism, realism, naturalism, symbolism, impressionism, cubism, futurism … Nevertheless, the union of art and the bourgeoisie remained stable, even if not happy, only so long as the bourgeoisie itself took the initiative and was capable of maintaining a regime both politically and morally “democratic.” This was a question of not only giving free rein to artists and playing up to them in every possible way, but also of granting special privileges to the top layer of the working class, and of mastering and subduing the bureaucracy of the unions and workers’ parties. All these phenomena exist in the same historical plane.

Decay of Capitalist Society

The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch. It fears superstitiously every new word, for it is no longer a matter of corrections and reforms for capitalism but of life and death. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base. Hence new tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the last few decades – cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism – follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.

To find a solution to this impasse through art itself is impossible. It is a crisis which concerns all culture, beginning at its economic base and ending in the highest spheres of ideology. Art can neither escape the crisis nor partition itself off. Art cannot save itself. It will rot away inevitably – as Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of a culture founded on slavery – unless present-day society is able to rebuild itself. This task is essentially revolutionary in character. For these reasons the function of art in our epoch is determined by its relation to the revolution.

But precisely in this path history has set a formidable snare for the artist. A whole generation of “leftist” intelligentsia has turned its eyes for the last ten or fifteen years to the East and has bound its lot, in varying degrees, to a victorious revolution, if not to a revolutionary proletariat. Now, this is by no means one and the same thing. In the victorious revolution there is not only the revolution, but there is also the new privileged class which raises itself on the shoulders of the revolution. In reality, the “leftist” intelligentsia has tried to change masters. What has it gained?

The October revolution gave a magnificent impetus to all types of Soviet art. The bureaucratic reaction, on the contrary, has stifled artistic creation with a totalitarian hand. Nothing surprising here! Art is basically a function of the nerves and demands complete sincerity. Even the art of the court of absolute monarchies was based on idealization but not on falsification. The official art of the Soviet Union – and there is no other over there – resembles totalitarian justice, that is to say, it is based on lies and deceit. The goal of justice, as of art, is to exalt the “leader,” to fabricate an heroic myth. Human history has never seen anything to equal this in scope and impudence. A few examples will not be superfluous.

The well known Soviet writer, Vsevolod Ivanov, recently broke his silence to proclaim eagerly his solidarity with the justice of Vyshinsky. The general extermination of the old Bolsheviks, “those putrid emanations of capitalism,” stimulates in the artists a “creative hatred” in Ivanov’s words. Romantic, cautious by nature, lyrical, none too outspoken, Ivanov recalls Gorki, in many ways, but in miniature. Not a prostitute by nature, he preferred to remain quiet as long as possible but the time came when silence meant civil and perhaps physical annihilation. It is not a “creative hatred” that guides the pen of these writers but paralyzing fear.

Alexis Tolstoy, who has finally permitted the courtesan to master the artist, has written a novel expressly to glorify the military exploits of Stalin and Voroshilov at Tsaritsin. In reality, as impartial documents bear witness, the army of Tsaritsin – one of the two dozen armies of the revolution – played a rather sorry role. The two “heroes” were lieved of their posts. [1] If the honest and simple Chapayev, one of the real heroes of the civil war is glorified in a Soviet film, it is only because he did not live until the “epoch of Stalin” which would have shot him as a Fascist agent. The same Alexis Tolstoy is now writing a drama on the theme of the year 1919: The Campaign of the Fourteen Powers. The principal heroes of this piece, according to the words of the author, are “Lenin, Stalin and Voroshilov. Their images [of Stalin and Voroshilov!] haloed in glory and heroism, will pervade the whole drama.” Thus, a talented writer who bears the name of the greatest and most truthful Russian realist, has become a manufacturer of “myths” to order!

Very recently, the 27th of April of this year, the official government paper Izvestia, printed a reproduction of a new painting representing Stalin as the organizer of the Tiflis strike in March 1902. However, it appears from documents long known to the public, that Stalin was in prison at that time and besides not in Tiflis but in Batum. This time the lie was too glaring! Izvestia was forced to excuse itself the next day for its deplorable blunder. No one knows what happened to the unfortunate picture, which was paid for from State funds.

Dozens, hundreds, thousands of books, films, canvases, sculptures immortalize and glorify such historic “episodes.” Thus the numerous pictures devoted to the October revolution do not fail to represent a revolutionary “Center,” with Stalin at its head, which never existed. It is necessary to say a few words concerning the gradual preparation of this falsification. Leonid Serebriakov, shot after the Piatakov-Radek trial, drew my attention in 1924 to the publication in Pravda, without explanation, of extracts from the minutes of the Central Committee of the latter part of 1917. An old secretary of the Central Committee, Serebriakov had numerous contacts behind the scenes with the party apparatus, and he knew enough the object of this unexpected publication: it was the first step, still a cautious one, towards the principal Stalinist myth, which now occupies so great a place in Soviet art.

The Mythical “Center”

From an historical distance the October insurrection seem much more planned and monolithic than what it proved to be in reality. In fact, there were lacking neither vacillations, search for solutions, nor impulsive beginnings which led nowhere. Thus, at the meeting of the Central Committee on the 16th of October, improvised in one night, in the presence of the most active leaders of the Petrograd Soviets, it was decided to round out the general-staff of the insurrection with an auxiliary “Center” created by the party and composed of Sverdlov, Stalin, Bubnov, Uritzky and Djerjinsky. At the very same time at the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, a Revolutionary Military Committee was formed which from the moment of its appearance did so much work towards the preparation of the insurrection that the “Center,” appointed the night before, was forgotten by everybody, even by its own members. There were more than a few of such improvisations in the whirlwind of this period. [2] Stalin never belonged to the Military Revolutionary Committee, did not appear at Smolny, staff headuarters of the revolution, had nothing to do with the practical preparation of the insurrection, but was to be found editing Pravda and writing drab articles, which were very little read. During the following years nobody once mentioned the “Practical Center.” In memoirs of participants in the insurrection – and there is no shortage of these – the name of Stalin is not once mentioned. Stalin himself, in an article on the anniversary of the October insuriection, in the Pravda of November 7, 1918, describing all the groups and individuals who took part in the insurrection, does not say a word about the “Practical Center.” Nevertheless, the old minutes, discovered by chance in 1924 and falsely interpreted, have served as a base for the bureaucratic legend. In every compilation, bibliographical guide, even in recently edited school books, the revolutionary “Center” has a prominent place with Stalin, at its head. Furthermore, no one has tried, not even out of a sense of decency, to explain where and how this “Center” established its headquarters, to whom it gave orders and what they were, and whether minutes were taken where they are. We have here all the features of the Moscow trials. [3]

With the docility which distinguishes it, Soviet art so-called, has made this bureaucratic myth into one of its favorite subjects for artistic creation. Sverdlov, Djerjinsky, Uritsky and Bubnov are represented in oils or in tempera, seated or standing around Stalin and following his words with rapt attention. The building where the “Center” has headquarters, is intentionally depicted in a vague fashion, in order to avoid the embarrassing question of the address. What can one hope for or demand of artists who are forced to follow with their brushes the crude lines of what they themselves realize is an historical falsification?

The style of present-day official Soviet painting is called “socialist realism.” The name itself has evidently been invented by some high functionary in the department of the arts. This “realism” consists in the imitation of provincial daguerreotypes of the third quarter of the last century; the “socialist” character apparently consists in representing, in the manner of pretentious photography, events which never took place. It is impossible to read Soviet verse and prose without physical disgust, mixed with horror, or to look at reproductions of paintings and sculpture in which functionaries armed with pens, brushes, and scissors, under the supervision of functionaries armed with Mausers, glorify the “great” and “brilliant” leaders, actually devoid of the least spark of genius or greatness. The art of the Stalinist period will remain as the frankest expression of the profound decline of the proletarian revolution.

This state of things is not confined, however, within the frontiers of the USSR. Under the guise of a belated recognition of the October revolution, the “left” wing of the western intelligentsia has fallen on its knees before the Soviet bureaucracy. As a rule, those artists with some character and talent have kept aloof. But the appearance in the first ranks, of the failures, careerists and nobodys is all the more unfortunate. A rash of Centers and Committees of all sorts has broken out, of secretaries of both sexes, inevitable letters from Romain Rolland, subsidized editions, banquets and congresses, in which it is difficult to trace the line of demarcation between art and the GPU. Despite this vast spread of activity, this militarized movement has not produced one single work that was able to outlive its author or its inspirers of the Kremlin.

Rivera and October

In the field of painting, the October revolution has found her greatest interpreter not in the USSR but in faraway Mexico, not among the official “friends,” but in the person of a so-called “enemy of the people” whom the Fourth International is proud to number in its ranks. Nurtured in the artistic cultures of all peoples, all epochs, Diego Rivera has remained Mexican in the most profound fibres of his genius. But that which inspired him in these magnificent frescoes, which lifted him up above the artistic tradition, above contemporary art in a certain sense, above himself, is the mighty blast of the proletarian revolution. Without October, his power of creative penetration into the epic of work, oppression and insurrection, would never have attained such breadth and profundity. Do you wish to see with your own eyes the hidden springs of the social revolution? Look at the frescoes of Rivera. Do you wish to know what revolutionary art is like? Look at the frescoes of Rivera.

Come a little closer and you will see clearly enough, gashes and spots made by vandals: Catholics and other reactionaries, including of course, Stalinists. These cuts and gashes give even greater life to the frescoes. You have before you, not simply a “painting,” an object of passive esthetic contemplation, but a living part of the class struggle. And it is at the same time a masterpiece!

Only the historical youth of a country which has not yet emerged from the stage of struggle for national independence, has allowed Rivera’s revolutionary brush to be used on the walls of the public buildings of Mexico. In the United States it was more difficult. Just as the monks in the Middle Ages, through ignorance, it is true, erased antique literary productions from parchments to cover them with their scholastic ravings, just so Rockefeller’s lackeys, but this time maliciously, covered the frescoes of the talented Mexican with their decorative banalities. This recent palimpsest will conclusively show future generations the fate of art degraded in a decaying bourgeois society.

The situation is no better, however, in the country of the October revolution. Incredible as it seemed at first sight, there was no place for the art of Diego Rivera, either in Moscow, or in Leningrad, or in any other section of the USSR where the bureaucracy born of the revolution was erecting grandiose palaces and monuments to itself. And how could the Kremlin clique tolerate in its kingdom an artist who paints neither icons representing the “leader” nor life-size portraits of Voroshilov’s horse? The closing of the Soviet doors to Rivera will brand forever with an ineffaceable shame the totalitarian dictatorship.

Will it go on much longer – this stifling, this trampling under foot and muddying of everything on which the future of humanity depends? Reliable indications say no. The shameful and pitiable collapse of the cowardly and reactionary politics of the Popular Fronts in Spain and France, on the one hand, and the judicial frame-ups of Moscow, on the other, portend the approach of a major turning point not only in the political sphere, but also in the broader sphere of revolutionary ideology. Even the unfortunate “friends” – but evidently not the intellectual and moral shallows of The New Republic and Nation– are beginning to tire of the yoke and whip. Art, culture, politics need a new perspective. Without it humanity will not develop. But never before has the prospect been as menacing and catastrophic as now. That is the reason why panic is the dominant state of mind of the bewildered intelligentsia. Those who oppose an irresponsible skepticism to the yoke of Moscow do not weight heavy in the balance of history. Skepticism is only another form, and not the best, of demoralization. Behind the act, so popular now, of impartially keeping aloof from the Stalinist bureaucracy as well as its revolutionary adversaries, is hidden nine times out of ten a wretched prostration before the difficulties and dangers of history. Nevertheless, verbal subterfuges and petty maneuvers will be of no use. No one will be granted either pardon or respite. In the face of the era of wars and revolutions which is drawing near, everyone will have to give an answer: philosophers, poets, painters as well as simple mortals.

In the June issue of your magazine I found a curious letter from an editor of a Chicago magazine, unknown to me. Expressing (by mistake, I hope) his sympathy for your publication, he writes: “I can see no hope however [?] from the Trotskyites or other anemic splinters which have no mass base.” These arrogant words tell more about the author than he perhaps wanted to say. They show above all that the laws of development of society have remained a seven times sealed book for him. Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses – if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as “splinters” of older movements. In the beginning, Christianity was only a “splinter” of Judaism; Protestantism a “splinter” of Catholicism, that is to say decayed Christianity. The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a “splinter” of the Hegelian Left. The Communist International germinated during the war from the “splinters” of the Social Democratic International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These “splinters” did not suffer from anemia; on the contrary, they carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow.

“Splinters” and Pioneers

In very much the same way, to repeat, a progressive movement occurs in art. When an artistic tendency has exhausted its creative resources, creative “splinters” separate from it, which are able to look at the world with new eyes. The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative “mass base,” the more conventional souls, skeptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or “anemic splinters‚” But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, skeptics and snobs who are wrong – and life passes them by.

The Thermidorian bureaucracy, to whom one cannot deny either a certain animal sense of danger or a strong instinct of self-preservation, is not at all inclined to estimate its revolutionary adversaries with such whole-hearted disdain, a disdain which is often coupled with lightness and inconsistency. In the Moscow trials, Stalin, who is not a venturesome player by nature, staked on the struggle against “Trotskyism,” the fate of the Kremlin oligarchy as well as his own personal destiny. How can one explain this fact? The furious international campaign against “Trotskyism,” for which a parallel in history will be difficult to find, would be absolutely inexplicable if the “splinters” were not endowed with an enormous vitality. He who does not see this today will see it better tomorrow.

As if to complete his self-portrait with one brilliant stroke, your Chicago correspondent vows – what bravery! – to meet you in a future concentration camp either fascist or “communist.” A fine program! To tremble at the thought of the concentration camp is certainly not admirable. But is it much better to foredoom oneself and one’s ideas to this grim hospitality? With the Bolshevik “amoralism” which is characteristic of us, we are ready to suggest that gentlemen – by no means anemic – who capitulate before the fight and without a fight really deserve nothing better than the concentration camp.

It would be a different matter if your correspondent simply said: in the sphere of literature and art we wish no supervision on the part of “Trotskyists” any more than from the Stalinists. This protest would be, in essence, absolutely just. One can only retort that to aim it at those who are termed “Trotskyists” would be to batter in an open door. The ideological base of the conflict between the Fourth and Third Internationals is the profound disagreement not only on the tasks of the party but in general on the entire material and spiritual life of mankind.

The real crisis of civilization is above all the crisis of revolutionary leadership. Stalinism is the greatest element of reaction in this crisis. Without a new flag and a new program it is impossible to create a revolutionary mass base; consequently it is impossible to rescue society from its dilemma. But a truly revolutionary party is neither able nor willing to take upon itself the task of “leading” and even less of commanding art, either before or after the conquest of power. Such a pretension could only enter the head of a bureaucracy – ignorant and impudent, intoxicated with its totalitarian power – which has become the antithesis of the proletarian revolution. Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them,. Artistic creation has its laws – even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself. Poets, painters, sculptors and musicians will themselves find their own approach and methods, if the struggle for freedom of oppressed classes and peoples scatters the clouds of skepticism and of pessimism which cover the horizon of mankind. The first condition of this regeneration is the overthrow of the domination of the Kremlin bureaucracy.

May your magazine take its place in the victorious army of socialism and not in a concentration camp!

Leon Trotsky
Coyoacan, D.F.
June 18, 1938


What are we to do with Thomas Mann?

In the May and the June issues of 1938, the question of what to do with Thomas Mann’s novels was a lively one for the Partisan Review  writers.   What increased their interest in Mann’s work in that year was not only the crashing of Europe into Fascism,  but the journal’s stance that while the rout of bourgeois society was to be the utopian end of capitalism’s crises,  its aesthetic achievements seemed, according to Rhav’s classicism, and others, liable to mastery by revolutionary politics and through re-appropriation by revolutionary Modernists.

You may remember William Phillips’s discussion essay, “Thomas Mann: Humanism in Exile,”  which was the lead political essay in Partisan Review,

Volume IV, No.6, May, 1938. Thomas Mann, 1914 (b/w photo) Thomas Mann

My complaint with that was the way Phillips used the slogan of ‘science’ as a cure for the romanticism — in Mann’s case —  of his focus on the role of the Artist as exemplary figure of decay.   With hindsight I can see how Phillips has already understood the position that Troy is going take, and as a response Phillips squeezes his an alysis into a contest  between  marxist science against artistic self-annihilation.  Thomas Mann had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, and now, 9 years later, critics wondered what would happen to him and to his work.  He fled to the USA in 1939, and became a United States citizen in 1944.

In “Thomas Mann:  Myth and Reason,”  the next article in the June 1938 issueWilliam Troy places Mann in the line of the mittel-european ‘masters,’ Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Wagner.  But, he acknowledges, contemporary writers and thinkers don’t like this reading of Mann because it suggests that it sounds too much like the idealizing myth-making of fascism. Troy aims to indemnify him from that charge by surrounding Mann’s work up through Magic Mountain  with Freud’s analytical and Jung’s more controversial ideas about myths and the psyche.   Troy tells us :“We live in an age whose atmosphere has become so charged with the sulphurous fumes of conflicting mythologies that reason has less and less air in which to respire.” However, and this is the theme that Troy pursues throughout Mann’s published work to date (1938). “that rather than being inconsistent with his long devotion to the cause of reason, Mann ‘s turning to the myth(why does he call it ‘the’ myth – it scares me.)in his new work represents a synthesis between reason and experience that is full of the highest possibilities for our time.”   And “we are confronted with two orders of meaning – the logical and the symbolic, as if the dialectic interplay between the two constitutes his work as a whole.”

It is pretty hard here in 2017 to stay interested in Troy’s often,(albeit acute), remarks about the structure of Mann’s heroes, anti-heroes, and plots when we are living now in Lucretian times, when the classical sublime has not only relinquished its claims to beauty and to truths, but also,  instead of aspiring to what now look like insipid concepts of wholeness entirely unimaginable to our contemporary and alert persons,  has become the world of action and ideas without outcomes, and usually with de-creation as an intellectual desideratum. 

So Troy walks us through a life history that is a romantic myth cycle: in which the hero: “Is that lonely and neglected figure, that “marked man,” that black-sheep of modern bourgeois society to which he has referred as the ‘artist-type.’  The early stories of Mann are also marked by symbolic disfigurations that manifest the anti-ness of the artist-hero.  Troy gives these carbuncled and maimed characters the status of being the excrescences of Mann’s own immature imagination, “writing at the level of the abyss,” and kin to the sadism and masochism explored by Mario Praz, in The Romantic Agony.  Les jeux sont faits.   In Buddenbrooks Mann cuts off symbolic deformity from the surfaces of the body, and sinks it into the psychic pathology, within the agent, and within the family, and within bourgeois society as a whole.  The generalisation of disease and corruption that Mann undertakes is returned to the reader as an aesthetic deviation as well: this is the world of Death in Venice: Here Troy introduces what James Burnham will call an ‘anthropological approach’ and sees Aschenbach as engaged in a delayed adolescent initiation rite. So it is that the route to wholeness is mapped out,  and Troy makes Mann  one who belongs to the formalism of mythic completion.  Now that the artist  belongs to a formalism of completion, things begin develop and conclude, unlike life and literature as we know it now.

“At once it becomes obvious that he could never have forsworn the abyss because he has never known it, or he would not be so shocked and disgusted by his observations on the way. Aschenbach becomes the victim of an infantile regression: the mind’s own tendency to project images of its unappeasable love of perfection.”

Troy is on to something here. The door opens to continual depletions, into a world distorted and always partially wrong. “As the object of desire, however, Tadzio  can only be frustrating, absurd, impossible, the mere dream of him as such leading his worshipper straight into the depths of the abyss.”

When Troy gives to Mann the certainty of a transcendent conclusion, a cleansing of the corruption, it falls flat in our century.  Troy has Mann fit his cycle with a dream of transcendence, but offers nothing more substantial to either sustain or demonstrate the claim of wholeness.  But really what survived of wholeness in 1938?  Not a lot.

To read the second part of Troy’s discussion go to:

http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/

Dwight Macdonald on Soviet Cinema, 1930-1938

In the autumn of 1985 I did three important things: first, I fell into ridiculous love with a Swiss Anthropologist. The Swiss Anthropologist didn’t love me, but he did call me his “little punk girl,” which flattered me at the time; second – I gave up smoking; third – I saw Potemkin about thirty five times while preparing a course on Film and Literature in the 20th Century. I was a new Assistant Professor at Brandeis, and had recently  joined





Socialist Professors’ group. I felt perfectly


content as a post- San Franciscan,  and as a waveringly post-Trot girl by the presence in the Socialist Prof group of the elegant, clever and kind Ralph Miliband— longtime editor of Socialist Register — and who I later hallucinated as a ghost crossing the pedestrian bridge at Chalk Farm a few years after his death in 1994. This was long before his two disgraceful sons blighted the political landscape in Britain.Unknown-10  The wonderful Ralph Miliband.

Now to the real thing, Potemkin: I certainly wish that I had read Dwight Macdonald’s  two-parter, begun in the July, 1938 volume of Partisan Review, right after Rahv’s piece on Dostoyevsky —  moving from the presentness of a classic to the invention of the aesthetics of film.  At the time I was having my binge-watch of Potemkin, American film studies had learned from the likes of Britain’s Screen  and French structuralism, to think of film in semiotic terms, and the textbook written by Bordwell and Thompson gave thousands of college students a vocabulary of terms and concepts to see film art as an aesthetic available to techno-theoretical descriptions.

But back here in the summer of 1938, Dwight Macdonald was still alive with the enormous inventions of Soviet Cinema at the beginning of the decade and the Stalinist campaign against Modernist cinema. What Macdonald gives us in the first part of the essay is the historico-political grounding for what I was teaching 40 years later.

Macdonald, experienced in addressing a readership with clarity and wit in Fortune and The New Yorker, opens with the scene of youthful exhilaration of the Revolution and the desire by Soviet film makers to invent and define an ‘art’ of film composition, and to give film the status of  ‘science.’ Eisenstein’s Potemkin is film as an art object, and aims to present time as space through montage: cross cutting sections of film to generate juxtapositions of concepts, sounds, images, that turn temporal sequences  into visual collages.

Macdonald writes”When …Potemkin was released in 1925, it made an international sensation. Even Hollywood was impressed by its power and originality; Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. de Mille, and other American movie celebrities made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union. In more intellectual circles, it was recognised at once that the cinema had at last spoken in its own language, The building up of a rhythmic structure in the cutting room (“montage”), the use of real settings and non-professional  actors, the use of pictorial symbols corresponding to Wagner’s  ‘themes’, the abandonment of the old literary-theatrical unilinear narrative in favour of a many -threaded episodic development (‘the compound plot’), the emphasis on the mass rather  than the individual protagonist – these radical innovations freed the cinema from its bondage to the threatre and gave it for the first time its own aesthetic… In the next few years the Soviet produced one film after another to which the adjective “great” could be scrupulously applied.”

Early history:

The Soviet Union had not had much of a film industry prior to the Revolution, but had relied on films from France and other European countries.  But in 1919, the government nationalised cinema, and attached it to the Commissariat of Education.  Trotsky saw that it was a valuable opportunity for the promotion of the Arts in the Soviet Union. Apparently Trotsky had campaigned to turn the Soviet chain of Vodka shops into cinemas. He hoped it was help draw people from religion to buiding the new nation. By 1924, Soviet film-making was about to blossom.  Macdonald makes the point that since Meyerhold and Stanislavsky had been changing theatrical method before the Revolution, many films were recorded versions of stage productions under the direction of Anatole Lunacharsky.

By 1924 the underlying conditions for an esthetic upsurge had been created. (Political: Sovinko, State film council; social:formation of workers’ film groups; economic: the liquidation of ‘War Communism,’ (which allowed decent film stock and other supplies to be available .) Macdonald outlines the inventiveness of the work of 1924:

    1. The Factory of the Eccentric Actor, “They base their technique on the grotesque but exact eccentrics of the circus, on the balance of acrobats.”
    2. The Documentary Focus, in the work of Dziga Vertov, “fanatic of the ‘documentary film, whose programme was “Only documentary facts! No illusions! Down with the Actor and  Scenery! Long live the film of actuality!”  images-12Unknown-13Unknown-12

3.Montage, Years before anyone else, Vertov proclaimed the theory and acted on it, that the arranging of individual shots in the cutting room is the basic creative process in cinema  . . .Less fanatical, and with broader talent, L. Kuleshov to first show the unlimited possibilities of film.   

But for Macdonald, the greatest expression of this experimental film was through the work of Segei Eistenstein: “From the Eccentric Actor group, he took stylization and symbols, from Vertov a preference for non-professional actors and an aversion to studio sets, from Kuleshov the principle of montage.            

From 1925-1929,the heyday of Soviet film, the  NEP was still in power, and by 1929, Stalin had cleared the hierarchy of most of the Left Opposition, and the Five-Year Plan was in action. While industry and agriculture were developed through forced collectivization,  “the movies were speedily harnessed to the wheels of the plan. In 1930, a plan was announced for theatre, cinema, sculpture and painting. By the end of 1933, the annual production of feature films was to be increased to 350, which is more than all the studios of Hollywood combined produce in an average year. “

The focus of the plan on production meant, not surprisingly, that issues of aesthetics were downplayed. The quotas for Directors meant that “By now, Dovzhenko is eleven films behind his ‘norm,;’ Pudovkin thirteen, and Eisenstein fifteen.”

Macdonald then turns to the issues that faced Soviet film directors from 1928-1938: “One is technical — the use of sound. The other is how to treat a new theme: the everyday life of the Soviet Union. These are difficult problems and, to the observer of 1930-1932,” it wasn’t clear how to move forward.

Eisenstein believed that montage was the necessary form for filming, but with the appearance in 1927 of The Jazz Singer, the Modernist soviet directors were caught by surprise, Eisenstein and Pudovkin writing a manifesto in 1929, wrote “Only the use of sound as counterpoint  against visual cutting opens up new possibilities and will further perfect the art of editing. The first experiments in sound must be directed towards its pronounced non-coincidence with the visual image.” Well, he was swimming the wrong way, it appears.

The only really successful Soviet film in 1931 was Nicolai Ekk’s Road to Life, a life about bringing a gang of ‘wild boys’  into modern soviet life.

Unknown-14images-13 Nikolai Ekkimages-14   Road to Life.

But Macdonald’s central point about this period is that what set Soviet Cinema back was the “forcible proletarianisation” of arts and letters which was carried on by a set of ultra-leftist sectarians, theologians, and bureaucrats. The most notorious case was the dictatorship exercised over literature, with Stalin’s blessing, by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers , whose slogan was, “Art is a Class Weapon.”

Dziga Vertov had control over much of the industry in 1930, and was against producing anything other than documentary films.  And a campaign against  petit bourgeois and bourgeois elements in the films of Eisenstein and more overtly, Dovzhenko’s Earth, began. “Istvestia had a three-column  article denouncing the film as ‘counter-revolutionary,’ ‘defeatist’ and ‘too realistic.’ images-15 Unknown-159b02eb6247be8340671f82655726902ca7750d92

Dovzhenko directing Earth. (1930)

  1. to read full text, click:DwightMacdonald on Soviet Cinema
  2. The second half of Macdonald’s article will be discussed later on this blog.

next: William Troy on Thomas Mann

Philip Rahv on Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed

Philip Rahv was the most dialectical of thinkers in the PR group, with the possible exception of Sidney Hook in his dialectical days. Throughout the summer issues of  Partisan Review, 1938, you can feel the need of the contributors to attach what Rahv calls “classical” literary traditions to the present moment, while remaining committed to the positions of the non-CP communists within and around Trotsky. In his essay on Dostoyevsky, Rahv begins his discussion of  The Possessed by making this explicit argument:  A classic has to stay alive to be readable.

“To be means to recur.  In the struggle for survival among works of art, those prove themselves the fittest that recur most often…. The past retains its vitality insofar as it impersonates the present, either in its aversions or ideals; in the same way a classic work renews itself by impersonating a modern one.”

And so Rahv uses his argument to turn the explicitly reactionary Dostoyevsky into the hidden but present radical Dostoyevsky.  The Possessed has become contemporary again because it addresses itself to the problems of revolutionary politics.  The particulars will differ beween the earlier 19th century arguments for Liberalism and Slavism and Nihilism, and those of Bolshevism, but, as Rahv orientates the reader, “It is not by chance that on the occasion of the Moscow Trials, the world press unanimously recalled to its readers the name of Dostoyevsky, the great nay-sayer to the revolution.” 

As you may already know, Dostoyevsky had been involved in his twenties with a radical group in St. Petersburg who studied and modelled themselves on French Utopian thinking. He was arrested with others in the group, and sentenced to four years of hard labour and then exile to Siberia. Rahv suggests that the recovery of Dostoyevsky to Soviet favour was anchored to the fantasy of the ‘Slav Soul.’  As a version of the instinctual mythical romantic nationalism that was abroad in Europe, the  ‘Slav Soul ‘ became an aesthetic movement as well.

Peredvizhniki –Slavophile Artists, 1872     Alphonse Maria Mucha, “The UNion of all Slavs.”

 

“That swollen concept [the Slav Soul] is the product of the sociological romanticism of the Slavophile movement, which substituted brooding about history for making it… As for those ‘sympathisers’ of Stalin who use the “Slav Soul” to prove the innocence of the GPU and the guilt of its victims…If you make the unfathomable perversity of the Slav nature  your premise, then logically your conclusion cannot exclude any explanation, no matter how wild and incredible.”  

Rahv  argues that although Dostoyevsky had turned against political revolutionary theory, “this analyst of contradictions, who was ever vibrating between faith and heresy, made revolutionaries the object of his venom, there is a real affinity between them.  If Dostoyevsky is now on the side of the revolutionaries, then those are the revolutionaries of the Left Opposition, and the revolutionaries who are the victims of the Moscow Trials.

“If in the past social critics dismissed The Possessed as a vicious caricature of the socialist movement, today the emergence of  Stalinism compels a revision of that judgement. Its peculiar ‘timeliness’ flows from the fact that the motives, actions, and ideas of the revolutionaries in it are so ambiguous, so embedded in mystifications, as to suggest those astonishing negations of the revolutionary ideal which have come into existence since Lenin’s death.[1924]

Taking on the principal characters of The Possessed, beginning with Verhovensky, who Rahv compares with two secret policemen of Stalin’s NKVD, Genrich Yagoda1936_genrich_grigorijewitsch_jagodaYezov and Nikolai Yezhov, both of whom were later denounced and added to the numbers of those executed during  the Moscow Trials and shortly afterwards.

Rahv writes that Dostoyevsky “hated socialism because it objectified his lack of belief and his heretical love for the  boundless expansion and change of which the human mind is capable”. He concludes this essay proving Dostoyevsky’s revolutionary meaning :  “Reactionary in its abstract content, in its aspect as a system of ideas, his art is radical in sensibility and subversive in performance. Rahv’s tour de force also adumbrates the future of criticism.

images-8

In 1972, Rahv took another look at Dostoyevsky and there found a version of the novelist’s work that opens out into what will become that more meaningful within rising theories of post-structuralism. Rahv dismisses Reinhard Lauth’s Dostoevsky’s Philosophy Systematically Presented,  as a critical gaffe of the first order: “For in Dostoevsky there is in fact no systematic philosophy, no consistent and logically shaped point of view, neither a stable outlook nor any kind of mental stasis. His speculatively charged, dynamic, spiritually and intellectually turbulent mode of thought breeds mostly insoluble contradictions, paradoxes at once stimulating and disruptive, as well as outright antinomies. The ponderous systematizing that Herr Lauth goes in for with such dogged persistence is a quality of his own intellectual temper, not of Dostoevsky’s.”  Rahv concludes his essay for the New York Review of Books, by looking again at the disjunctions and openings in Dostoeyevsky’s narratives, and linking them to another opposition in his work; that between the old and Hebraic story of the lost kingdom and the prospect of a new earthly paradise, to be made and enjoyed here in this world.

“This alternate vision can thus be said to be a precursor of the historical shift from the concern with what exists beyond the visible world to the concern with the visible. As William James once phrased it, “The earth of things, long thrown into shade by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.”

SO Rahv secures the author of The Possessed  for  the Trots, and later, for the deconstructioneers.

read the full text:  click        

next:   Dwight Macdonald on Soviet Cinema, 1930-1938 (Part One).

Reading Partisan Review — One year on

I have now completed a year’s worth of posts about Partisan Review on this site.   I have learned a huge amount about the values and norms and intellectual issues that fuelled the discussions of the contributors during the journal’s first two years, 1937 and 1938, through a reading their poems, essays, articles, political polemics. I have been grateful for the suggestions and comments made by my Followers, and my respect for this blogging life has increased as I have come to read the many blogs that have helped me with this one.

All of which is to say:  I am going to take this weekend off… I will be back next week, with a post on Philip Rahv’s article on Dostoevsky’s politics.

rahv-mugshot-197x300                                 Unknown-9

AJ