“American Artists Congress, 1939,” George L.K. Morris, PR, Spring 1939.

AAC1939 As you may recall from earlier posts, the artists’  group that reflected the aesthetic/political taste of the Popular Front was the American Artists’ Congress, sponsored by the Communist Party, USA, and aimed to contribute to the campaign against fascism. We have looked at many critiques of the Popular Front from the positions of writers for Partisan Review, which began with the Moscow Trials of 1936-38, and the development of the Trotskyist movement within and then exiled from, the Stalinist betrayal of the Russian Revolution. One of the features of Partisan Review’s stance was it’s advocacy of new forms of art, and in particular the modernist movements in painting and sculpture.  Morris’s short reviews of two sponsored events, the 3rd annual AAC of 1939, held in a sixth-floor gallery at 444 Madison Avenue, and the show held by American Abstract Painters Association that same year in March, at the Riverside Museum. Morris’s approach to each of these events is, for the most part, consistent with the splits between Stalinists and Trotskyists on the style of abstraction.

“The Artists’ Congress offers perhaps the broadest opportunity for appraising various influences that are now shaping the more popular courses of American art. And there are indications of greater promise in this 1939 Exhibition than one is accustomed to discover from large-scale displays at the present time. The native selections at the Metropolitan and Whitney Museums have long created a suspicion that American bourgeois art was fated to become permanently stuck in a lifeless morass of expanding vulgarity, and most local exhibitions have merely added to this unpalatable picture. At the Artists Congress, however, there is an absence of impressionist trickery, and a refreshing directness which might conceivably vitalize a genuine tradition. There is often a surprising technical freedom as well, and a pleasure in the manipulation of direct impasto. No quality is more readily communicated than that of drudgery, and it is perhaps significant that in this show the leading exponents of drudgery are usually those artists whom we encounter most often in the public galleries.

“The favourable impression would have been more successfully sustained if the galleries had been less generously provided with chairs. One must pause at length before a picture, and unfortunately there was little here that could stand a very intimate acquaintance. Many works disclosed the striking transcription of a momentary image, but that real distinction between which our century seems so rarely capable of of realising,was singularly absent. There was little to suggest the stirring of an esthetic impulse; the political earnestness had obviously thrown its weight in the opposite direction. {AJ: I find it strange that though Picasso’s Guernica arrived as an addition to the show, Morris doesn’t give it a mention}

3154201312860029“Works of every genre were in evidence, but the Congress exhibitions derive their special character from a preponderance of paintings that might be loosely classified as  “social satires.” Here, at any rate, they tended to eclipse all other types of work; at the same time they were to demonstrate the unavoidable effect of violent subject matter upon artists who have never been grounded on an authentic tradition of their own.The very language of painting, by which  literary ideas can be made plastically credible, has been laid aside; therefore, the more intense the illustrative emotion, the more it has appeared to stick through the structural fabric, until often the connection between title and expressive means would become quite arbitrary. A painting here entitled Refugees {AJ: William Gropper} could have passed many years ago for a peculiarly romantic Madonna and Child. And one particular work, Flight from Fascism, went so far as to take its pose and composition quite blatantly from Delacroix’s Flight of Medea. –{AJ: this comparison doesn’t make any sense — can anyone help?! and I can’t find the image of the “Flight from Fascism, either. }. 

But Morris isn’t actually interested in Popular Front political art; what he is interested in is the work of the American Abstract Artists group, of which he had been a founding member.

““An Exhibition of almost equal proportions, although in complete opposition to that of the Congress, was held in March by the American Abstract Artists, and the resultant impressions are interesting to compare. The slogan of the Congress is For Peace, For Democracy, For Cultural Progress, and obvious comments upon these phrases echo resoundingly from every wall. The Abstract Artists share these convictions, but they also believe that the esthetic impulse cannot become a tool for concrete political or philosophical dissemination,– at this stage of our cultural metamorphosis at least. In their galleries the emphasis  contracts upon rudimentary encounters with pattern and design; there is a consistent searching after such shapes and linear combinations as can hold those conceptions of individuality which they feel to be evolving anew. The present decade may have publicized at last the cracks in the old social order. The Congress illustrates the crevices. The abstract artists, on the other hand, attempt to re-order their plastic instincts; they attack the established conceptions of art itself.

“The emergence of a sudden and intense restriction has often in the past accompanied the painful process of cultural reorientation. It can hardly have been by accident that another age of chaos, which saw the disintegration of the Roman Empire, should have left the Ravenna mosaics as its purest heritage. Possibly it requires an impasse comparable to that in which the world finds itself today to give courage to that complete restriction which has made possible the work of many abstract artists. The pitfalls are many which await the processes of consciously attempted simplification. Particularly in an age of science and mechanism the artist can be lured into reproducing no more than the purely static technique of the manufactured object. . Such painters as Shaw, Gallatin, and Greene have concentrated upon every direction that their flattened forms can follow, every linear juncture, every weight of tone and colour, without relinquishing personal stylistic over meaning. Their works are reticent, for their expressive ends have purposely been carried no farther than their simplified fabric will allow. Yet through such limited means they have destroyed the old conception of the ‘picture’; each has substituted a thing, — an object that is at rest completely, — and thus can a way some day be cleared for a new reality.

images-10

Unknown-13
Charles G. Shaw

Gallatin  A.E. Gallatin.  images-11

Balcombe Green Balcombe Green Unknown-15

I will be in New York for the next two Saturdays, but will be back after that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Poet as Poet,” Delmore Schwartz, Partisan Review, vol.6, No. 3,Spring 1939.

imageWe haven’t seen much  Delmore Schwartz in  Partisan Review for a while, but his companion piece to Auden’s “trial” of W.B. Yeats, “The Poet as Poet”, also takes on the issue of  how Yeats’ poetry changed over his long career. This was good news for poets in general, Schwartz wryly suggests: “The process of a bad poet of the ‘Nineties becoming a great poet in middle age. Henceforth no poet can be regarded as utterly hopeless: the possibility of a Yeatsian miracle will always present itself.” 

Schwartz describes Yeats’s youthful experiments in poetry as part the fin-de-siecle “mellifluous speech”– inherited from Shelley,  the Pre-Raphelites, and Swinburne.Yeats would go on to follow, the Indian thread of Mme. Blavatsky’s theosophical ‘researches’  along with the “cultic twaddle” of the Celtic Twilight.

From beginning to end, Yeats was evidently prepared to try anything. Socialism or hashish, once or twice. The idiom in which he wrote, however, was the period style, based upon a misunderstanding of Baudelaire and Mallarme by an emphasis on their superficial qualities.”

Schwartz next takes two stanzas from Yeats’s various imagining of his image of beauty and love, Maud Gonne; one from “The Wind Among the Reeds”; the other from “Among School Children.”

Dim Powers of drowsy thought, let her no longer be

Like the pale cup of the sea.

When the winds  have gathered and sun and moon burned dim

Above its cloudy rim;

But let a gentle silence wrought with music flow

Whither her footsteps go.

 

With respect to the earlier stanza, Schwartz explains,  the poetic voice creates a ‘general’ and vague atmospheric “of dim images musically sounded,” while in the stanza from “Among School Children,” that generality is replaced by “the precise  word and the precise observation are used to get a specific emotion on the page.

Her present image floats into the mind —

Did Quattrocento finger fashion it

Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind

And took a mess of shadows for its meat?

And I, though never of Ledean kind

Had pretty plumage once –enough of that,

Better to smile on all that smile, and show

There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

“It is this ability to represent emotion with the greatest vividness, directness, and dramatic justification which constitutes Yeats’s peculiar gift, rather than the understanding and insight   or the brilliance of observation or the freshness of attitudes and values which are the more usual marks of the great poet.”

Schwartz now turns to explain the ‘factors’ if not the reasons, that altered Yeats’s poetic:

During the years in which the change began to show itself, Yeats was faced with failures of various sorts. His early fame had begun to wane, his long courtship of one woman [Maud Gonne] had ended in emptiness. The Abbey Theatre, on which his hopes for a poetic theatre rested, had received little but abuse and misunderstanding, the whole Irish literary renaissance had faded, and many of his most gifted friends, Wilde, Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Synge, had died in misery and degradation. This would be enough to make most men forget about the land of dreams and the Irish fairyland of the early poems.” 

But Yeats didn’t simply forget what he had written. “He seized upon the opposition between the land of dreams and the actuality about him, and engaged in a continual see-saw between the two. The structure, so to speak, of thought and of feeling became what Yeats came to call antithetical.”

The fundamental opposition was between what Yeats called subjectivity and objectivity; or less ambiguously, introversion and extroversion.”  And from there everything in Yeats’s poetic was about the shifting from the one to the other. First was that between ART and Life; “which was sordid , sodden, and soiled,” or, as Lionel Johnson said, constituted by “a London Fog, the blurred tawny lamplight, the red omnibus, the glaring gin shop, the slatternly shivering women.”

Schwartz describes Yeats’s youth as one in which he “literally inhaled the doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake, and learned from his father that only that sort was genuine.” Yet Yeats’s work was always divided by his steady allegiance to ART and his various ones to politics. In

AN Irish Airman Forsees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Schwartz writes:  “The lonely impulse of delight, the rejection of law, duty, public men, and cheering crowds, betrays the voice as that of the poet of the ‘Nineties’ who has lived into the next generation. Yeats has transformed his hypothetical airman into a romantic poet, or we may say, if we consider this poem in relation to his work as a whole, that when confronted with the World War, the poet succeeds in sustaining the romantic attitude with which he began; but not however, without being perfectly aware of the difficult circumstances in which he is sustaining it.”

Schwartz goes on to look at the states of permanence that attract Yeats in his later poems. From this time onwards, the poet of ART sees that only those things can be rejected for the permanence of ART, or of timelessness, or of beautiful  stasis will be what lasts, while the ruins of human lives — the engagements with war and ambition and politics — must fall away in human time, leaving only the work of the Poet, out of time, the romantic poet,  to commemorate and tell what is past or passing or to come.

After reading the pieces by Auden and Schwartz on Yeats…I  see that  Auden and Schwartz are direct inheritors of Yeats; Auden perfecting the poetic language of the world of apparatuses and structures and objectivity; Schwartz elaborating the romanticism of the Poetic vocation.

Louis Macniece, from “Autumn Journal”, Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.4, Spring, 1939

Dear Readers, I am, as we used to say at Madison Square Garden, “down for the count,” — insensate, fluish, knee-wrecked.    SO, here, now that WWII is waiting in the wings for September 3, 1939, is the premonitory voice of Louis Macniece looking at what’s to come.  SO what if he sounds a bit too Audenesque..”Good-bye the Platonic sieve of the Carnal Man”.. that’s the voice of 1937-1939, and it works.

Spider, spider, twisting tight —

But the watch is wary beneath the pillow —

I am afraid in the web of night

When the window is fingered by the shadows of
branches,

When the lions roar beneath the hill

And the meter clicks and the cistern bubbles
And the gods are absent and the men are still—

Noli me tangere, my soul is forfeit.

Some now are happy in the hive of home,

Thigh over thigh and a light in the night nursery,
And some are hungry under the starry dome
And some sit turning handles.

Glory to God in the Lowest, peace beneath the earth,
Dumb and deaf at the nadir;

I wonder now whether anything is worth
The eyelid opening and the mind recalling.

And I think of Persephone gone down to dark,

No more a virgin, gone the garish meadow,

But why must she come back, why must the snowdrop
mark

That life goes on for ever?

There are nights when I am lonely and long for love
But to-night is quintessential dark forbidding
Anyone beside or below me; only above

Pile high the tumulus, good-bye to starlight.
Good-bye the Platonic sieve of the Carnal Man
But good-bye also Plato’s philosophising;

I have a better plan

To hit the target straight without circumlocution.

If you can equate Being in its purest form
With denial of all appearance,

Then let me disappear — the scent grows warm
For pure Not-Being, Nirvana.

Only the spider spinning out his reams

Of colourless thread says Only there are always
Interlopers, dreams,

Who let no dead dog lie nor death be final;
Suggesting, while he spins, that to-morrow will out-
weigh

To-night, that Becoming is a match for Being,

That to-morrow is also a day,

That I must leave my bed and face the music.

As all the others do who with a grin

Shake off sleep like a dog and hurry to desk or engine
And the fear of life goes out as they clock in
And history is reasserted.

Spider, spider, your irony is true;

Who am I — or I — to demand oblivion?

I must go out to-morrow as the others do
And build the falling castle;

Which has never fallen, thanks

Not to any formula, red tape or institution,

Not to any creeds or banks,

But to the human animal’s endless courage.

Spider, spider, spin

Your register and let me sleep a little,
Not now in order to end but to begin
The task begun so often.

 

“The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats,” by W.H. Auden. PR. Vol.6, No.3, Spring 1939.

images-8     W.B. Yeats                        images-9.jpeg   W.H. Auden

In this ‘trial’ of W.B. Yeats as a political poet and as a “great” poet, tout court,  Auden first presents the Prosecution’s case in the voice of an orthodox communist party member, and then the case for the Defense in something that comes from what we assume is Auden’s true position. But if the reader is committed both to revolutionary politics and to the regime of poetics, they will be left with a more perplexing and complex view: namely, that Yeats was both the ‘ great poet’ and a man of political contradictions.  The text of the ‘case’ follows here:

The Public v. the Late Mr William Butler Yeats
the public prosecutor.
Gentlemen of the Jury. Let us be quite clear in our minds as to the nature
of this case. We are here to judge, not a man, but his work. Upon the char- acter of the deceased, therefore, his affectations of dress and manner, his in- ordinate personal vanity, traits which caused a fellow countryman and former friend to refer to him as “the greatest literary fop in history”, I do not intend to dwell. I must only remind you that there is usually a close connection be- tween the personal character of a poet and his work, and that the deceased was no exception.
Again I must draw your attention to the exact nature of the charge. That the deceased had talent is not for a moment in dispute; so much is freely ad- mitted by the prosecution. What the defence are asking you to believe, how- ever, is that he was a great poet, the greatest of this century writing in English. That is their case, and it is that which the prosecution feels bound most em- phatically to deny.
A great poet. To deserve such an epithet, a poet is commonly required to convince us of three things: firstly a gift of a very high order for memorable language, secondly a profound understanding of the age in which he lives, and thirdly a working knowledge of and sympathetic attitude towards the most progressive thought of his time.
Did the deceased possess these? I am afraid, gentlemen, that the answer is, no.
On the first point I shall be brief. My learned friend, the counsel for the defence, will, I have no doubt, do his best to convince you that I am wrong. And he has a case, gentlemen. O yes, a very fine case. I shall only ask you to apply to the work of the deceased a very simple test. How many of his lines can you remember?
Further, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a poet who has a gift for lan- guage will recognize that gift in others. I have here a copy of an anthology edited by the deceased entitled The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. I challenge anyone in this court to deny that it is the most deplorable volume ever issued under the imprint of that highly respected firm which has done so much for the cause of poetry in this country, the Clarendon Press.
But in any case you and I are educated modern men. Our fathers imagined that poetry existed in some private garden of its own, totally unrelated to the workaday world, and to be judged by pure aesthetic standards alone. We know that now to be an illusion. Let me pass then, to my second point. Did the de- ceased understand his age?
4 ESSAYS AND REVIEWS 1939
What did he admire? What did he condemn? Well, he extolled the virtues of the peasant. Excellent. But should that peasant learn to read and write, should he save enough money to buy a shop, attempt by honest trading to raise himself above the level of the beasts, and O, what a sorry change is there. Now he is the enemy, the hateful huxter whose blood, according to the un- seemly boast of the deceased, never flowed through his loins. Had the poet chosen to live in a mud cabin in Galway among swine and superstition, we might think him mistaken, but we should admire his integrity. But did he do this? O dear no. For there was another world which seemed to him not only equally admirable, but a deal more agreeable to live in, the world of noble houses, of large drawing rooms inhabited by the rich and the decorative, most of them of the female sex. We do not have to think very hard or very long, before we shall see a connection between these facts. The deceased had the feudal mentality. He was prepared to admire the poor just as long as they remained poor and deferential, accepting without protest the burden of maintaining a little athenian band of literary landowners, who without their toil could not exist for five minutes.
For the great struggle of our time to create a juster social order, he felt nothing but the hatred which is born of fear. It is true that he played a cer- tain part in the movement for Irish Independence, but I hardly think my learned friend will draw your attention to that. Of all the modes of self- evasion open to the well-to-do, Nationalism is the easiest and most dishonest. It allows to the unjust all the luxury of righteous indignation against in- justice. Still, it has often inspired men and women to acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. For the sake of a free Ireland the poet Pearse and the count- ess Markiewicz gave their all. But if the deceased did give himself to this movement, he did so with singular moderation. After the rebellion of Easter Sunday 1916, he wrote a poem on the subject which has been called a mas- terpiece. It is. To succeed at such a time in writing a poem which could of- fend neither the Irish Republican nor the British army was indeed a mas- terly achievement.
And so we come to our third and last point. The most superficial glance at the last fifty years is enough to tell us that the social struggle towards greater equality has been accompanied by a growing intellectual acceptance of the scientific method and the steady conquest of irrational superstition. What was the attitude of the deceased towards this? Gentlemen, words fail me. What are we to say of a man whose earliest writings attempted to revive a belief in fairies and whose favourite themes were legends of barbaric heroes with un- pronounceable names, work which has been aptly and wittily described as Chaff about Bran?
But you may say, he was young; youth is always romantic; its silliness is part of its charm. Perhaps it is. Let us forgive the youth, then, and consider the mature man, from whom we have a right to expect wisdom and common

ESSAYS AND REVIEWS 1939 5
sense. Gentlemen, it is hard to be charitable when we find that the deceased, far from outgrowing his folly, has plunged even deeper. In 1900 he believed in fairies; that was bad enough; but in 1930 we are confronted with the piti- ful, the deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo- jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India. Whether he seriously believed such stuff to be true, or merely thought it pretty, or imagined it would im- press the public, is immaterial. The plain fact remains that he made it the centre of his work. Gentlemen, I need say no more. In the last poem he wrote, the deceased rejects social justice and reason, and prays for war. Am I mis- taken in imagining that somewhat similar sentiments are expressed by a cer- tain foreign political movement which every lover of literature and liberty ac- knowledges to be the enemy of mankind?
the counsel for the defence.
Gentlemen of the Jury. I am sure you have listened with as much enjoyment
as I to the eloquence of the prosecution. I say enjoyment because the spec- tacle of anything well-done, whether it be a feat of engineering, a poem, or even an outburst of impassioned oratory, must always give pleasure.
We have been treated to an analysis of the character of the deceased which, for all I know, may be as true as it is destructive. Whether it proves anything about the value of his poetry is another matter. If I may be allowed to quote my learned friend: “We are here to judge, not a man, but his work.” We have been told that the deceased was conceited, that he was a snob, that he was a physical coward, that his taste in contemporary poetry was uncertain, that he could not understand physics and chemistry. If this is not an invitation to judge the man, I do not know what is. Does it not bear an extraordinary re- semblance to the belief of an earlier age that a great artist must be chaste? Take away the frills, and the argument of the prosecution is reduced to this: “A great poet must give the right answers to the problems which perplex his generation. The deceased gave the wrong answers. Therefore the deceased was not a great poet.” Poetry in such a view is the filling up of a social quiz; to pass with honours the poet must score not less than 75%. With all due re- spect to my learned friend, this is nonsense. We are tempted so to judge con- temporary poets because we really do have problems which we really do want solved, so that we are inclined to expect everyone, politicians, scientists, poets, clergymen, to give us the answers, and to blame them indiscriminately when they do not. But who reads the poetry of the past in this way? In an age of rising nationalism, Dante looked back with envy to the Roman Empire. Was this socially progressive? Will only a Catholic admit that Dryden’s “The Hind and the Panther” is a good poem? Do we condemn Blake because he rejected Newton’s Theory of Light, or rank Wordsworth lower than Baker, because the latter had a deeper appreciation of the steam engine?
Can such a viewpoint explain why

6 ESSAYS AND REVIEWS 1939
Mock Emmet, Mock Parnell All the renown that fell
is good; and bad, such a line as
Somehow I think that you are rather like a tree.
In pointing out that this is absurd, I am not trying to suggest that art exists independently of society. The relation between the two is just as intimate and important as the prosecution asserts.
Every individual is from time to time excited emotionally and intellectually by his social and material environment. In certain individuals this excitement produces verbal structures which we call poems; if such a verbal structure cre- ates an excitement in the reader, we call it a good poem; poetic talent, in fact, is the power to make personal excitement socially available. Poets, i.e. per- sons with poetic talent, stop writing good poetry when they stop reacting to the world they live in. The nature of that reaction, whether it be positive or negative, morally admirable or morally disgraceful, matters very little; what is essential is that the reaction should genuinely exist. The later Wordsworth is not inferior to the earlier because the poet had altered his political opin- ions, but because he had ceased to feel and think so strongly, a change which happens, alas, to most of us as we grow older. Now, when we turn to the de- ceased, we are confronted by the amazing spectacle of a man of great poetic talent, whose capacity for excitement not only remained with him to the end, but actually increased. In two hundred years when our children have made a different and, I hope, better social order, and when our science has devel- oped out of all recognition, who but a historian will care a button whether the deceased was right about the Irish Question or wrong about the trans- migration of souls? But because the excitement out of which his poems arose was genuine, they will still, unless I am very much mistaken, be capable of exciting others, different though their circumstances and beliefs may be from his.
However since we are not living two hundred years hence, let us play the schoolteacher a moment, and examine the poetry of the deceased with ref- erence to the history of our time.
The most obvious social fact of the last forty years is the failure of liberal capitalist democracy, based on the premises that every individual is born free and equal, each an absolute entity independent of all others; and that a for- mal political equality, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right of free speech, is enough to guarantee his freedom of action in his relations with his fellow men. The results are only too familiar to us all. By denying the so- cial nature of personality, and by ignoring the social power of money, it has created the most impersonal, the most mechanical and the most unequal civilisation the world has ever seen, a civilisation in which the only emotion
common to all classes is a feeling of individual isolation from everyone else, a civilisation torn apart by the opposing emotions born of economic injus- tice, the just envy of the poor and the selfish terror of the rich.
If these latter emotions meant little to the deceased, it was partly because Ireland, compared with the rest of western Europe, was economically back- ward, and the class struggle was less conscious there. My learned friend has sneered at Irish Nationalism, but he knows as well as I that Nationalism is a necessary stage towards Socialism. He has sneered at the deceased for not taking arms, as if shooting were the only honourable and useful form of so- cial action. Has the Abbey Theatre done nothing for Ireland?
But to return to the poems. From first to last they express a sustained protest against the social atomisation caused by industrialism, and both in their ideas and their language a constant struggle to overcome it. The fairies and heroes of the early work were an attempt to find through folk tradition a binding force for society; and the doctrine of Anima Mundi found in the later poems is the same thing in a more developed form, which has left purely local peculiarities behind, in favour of something that the deceased hoped was universal; in other words, he was looking for a world religion. A purely religious solution may be unworkable, but the search for it is, at least, the re- sult of a true perception of a social evil. Again, the virtues that the deceased praised in the peasantry and aristocracy, and the vices he blamed in the com- mercial classes, were real virtues and vices. To create a united and just soci- ety where the former are fostered and the latter cured is the task of the politi- cian, not the poet.
For art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal. The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music com- posed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.
But there is one field in which the poet is a man of action, the field of lan- guage, and it is precisely in this that the greatness of the deceased is most ob- viously shown. However false or undemocratic his ideas, his diction shows a continuous evolution towards what one might call the true democratic style. The social virtues of a real democracy are brotherhood and intelligence, and the parallel linguistic virtues are strength and clarity, virtues which appear ever more clearly through successive volumes by the deceased.
The diction of The Winding Stair is the diction of a just man, and it is for this reason that just men will always recognize its author as a master.
Partisan Review, Spring 1939

 

The voice of the ‘just man,’ is then heard in Auden’s 1940 elegy for Yeats:

“IN MEMORY OF W.B.YEATS,”   W.H. Auden,

I

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

1940.

For Auden in 1940, “When intellectual disgrace,/Stares from every human face,” the poet may be the only one who can, “With your unconstraining voice,/ Still persuade us to rejoice.” Poetry may be able to heal the catastrophes of war: and Auden, having just arrived in New York, is ready to take on the poet’s work:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

 

Next week: Delmore Schwartz on W.B. Yeats.

 

Anatomy of the Popular Front. Sidney Hook. PR, vol. 6, no.3, Spring 1939. Part 3.

Part 3: The distinction between united and popular fronts specified.

Popular Fr.jpeg                                                 oyflat550x550,075,f.u6.jpg

In the next section of his essay, Hook looks at the critical differences between a “United Front” and a “Popular Front.”  He writes that there is a ‘basic theoretical confusion’ that goes along with discussions of the Popular Front.  This confusion,

Consists in an identification of two propositions: (1) The working class and its mass organisations must be the basis of the socialist movement; and (2) the working class and its mass organisations can by themselves win power and achieve socialism.The falsity of the second proposition is obvious, especially when it is doubtful that the working class constitutes a majority of the population. But the falsity of the second proposition does not imply the falsity of the first. The socialist movement must be based upon the working class, to mention only one of many reasons,  because in virtue of its situation in contemporary society there can be no solution of its problems. or even the plausible appearance of a solution, short of the abolition of the profit system. …The program of socialism can no more be taken away from the workers than capitalism can be taken away from the capitalists.

Despite this,  it remains true that without allies from the farmers and the lower middle classes the workers can never enjoy socialism in our time,… To state it positively, the problem is to make their potential allies see that that the  socialist solution proposed by the working class parties is ultimately the only solution possible for all producers and consumers.

Hook looks to the techniques of  persuasion, organisation, and militant struggle for continuous improvements in living conditions.

It is simply not the case, as Max Lerner imagines, that it is impossible for a program which expresses the immediate interests of a class to receive the support of the majority of the population.  It is precisely for this reason, i.e.,because it does want to win over sympathisers from all other classes, that the working class should not join the Popular Front of political parties representing different classes, not to speak of a National Front of all parties. For if it does, it thereby accepts and publicises a program of stabilising capitalism which, on its own economic theory, is doomed to fail, leaving its credulous followers easy picking for Fascism.. 

A United Front is an agreement between different political organisations with different political programs for joint action of a specific issue for a limited period of time. It is NOT an agreement of a common political program.

The moral of the whole discussion may now be drawn. A Socialist who calls for the formation of a Popular Front cannot do so without surrendering his socialism — no matter what he says in his heart. 

You may have, as readers, become a bit weary of Hook’s argument. However, even now when we look at the history of the revolutionary movements of the first decades of the 20th century, it is easy to get mixed up about what the Popular Front strategy meant as a structure.  But the precision of Hook’s discussion should, I think, make the liabilities of a Popular Front much easier to understand.

Unknown-9

Next Week: W.H. Auden on W.B. Yeats

 

Anatomy of the Popular Front. Sidney Hook. PR, vol. 6, no.3, Spring 1939. Part 2

Since it is Hook’s aim to show both that Lerner is both rational and also mistaken, the next part of his ‘anatomy’ is to follow in that rationality, until it is proven to be..irrational…..wrong.

“It is admitted on this position that the decline of capitalism cannot be checked by political measures of any kind. It is also admitted that in any Popular Front government it is the policy of the most conservative wing, which is pledged to support capitalism, that must prevail. Without capitalist parties there is no Popular Front. With them the workingclass parties become hostages of fear, timidity, and class interest of their allies.”    

Basically, Hook points out here that all the concessions that might be won from a Popular Front government could be won by working-class mobilisation of labor. SO there is no real need to support a Popular Front. Hook also agrees with Lerner that on this position, “that the first real step towards socialism will probably bring what Marx described as a pro-slavery rebellion to save capitalism.  Could such a movement be effectively met with a key party in the government which is itself intent upon saving capitalism?” Clearly: not.

So, Hook argues, Lerner’s own analysis “leads to an invitation to disaster.”:

“Either he must withdraw his critique of capitalist economy admitting that it can be stabilised both nationally and internationally in an era of decline, or he must acknowledge that the Popular Front is a dangerous illusion which, precisely because it cannot undertake any fundamental change in the economic order, makes it easier for the Fascists to develop a mass base.” 

Now, Hook turns to history to explore some related issues: first of all, readers should acknowledge that the Social Revolutionary period, under Kerensky, was from its start until just before the October Revolution a Popular Front government, which is why it failed “in every crucial test.”

“The menace of German militarism and the restoration of Czarism was as great a threat then as the menace of Fascism now. It had become a gigantic mass party of  heterogeneous social composition, with factions ranging from the extreme right to let, which prevented it from carrying out its own principles. 

The member of the Kerensky government most close to him was Chernov, who dithered about which sections of the mass party would be given the first concessions in a revolutionary situation. Chernov got caught on the question of giving land to the peasants. Chernov was not convinced, so began to abstain on votes…: ” SO strange and unwonted was Chernov’s silence that it enabled Trotsky to get off one of his brilliant quips: ‘Abstaining from the vote became for [Chernov] a form of political life.”  The lesson Hook draws from this is: The program of the group farthest to the right prevails and must prevail for this is the purchase price of its alliance: Everything else is rhetoric.

Hook’s second example is from Germany. “During most of the life of the Weimar Republic Germany was ruled by an informal coalition of Social Democracy, the Catholic Centre and some of the smaller parties on the the right and the left. But it did not and could not  take measures to transform Germany into a socialist economy. When an Arbitration Board decided an important dispute in favour of the Ruhr workers, the Ruhr industrialists refused to honour it. And the Social Democrats capitulated. And that gave the Fascists a new run at recruiting the unemployed and poorly paid.”

For his third example of the disaster of Popular Frontism,  Hook turns to France, where the “Popular Front was able to win some reforms because the conservatives feared the mood of the masses. ..The rise in the cost of living soon nullified the gains made earlier..and the Popular Front sought ‘to restore confidence in capitalism’. Hook notes that the strikes kindled by these economic problems led to accusations that the strikers were described as ‘agent-provocateurs’ by the working class parties supporting the Government, particularly the Communists.”

But more important is his argument that the international politics of French imperialism was a big factor in the problems of the Popular Front:

Most fateful of all, the Radical Socialists refused to permit the Popular Front government, organised to defeat Fascism, to send aid and supplies which the Spanish Popular Front needed to defeat Franco. France and Russia joined the Non-Intervention (!) Committee. 

The defeat of France’s General Strike, and with it the ‘back’ of the Popular Front: “At the present writing the French workers are in retreat, weaker than they have ever been. The menace of Fascism which was to be laid by the Popular Front looms larger than before.”

“WHAT WAS THE ALTERNATIVE? Had the working class parties made a United Front; had they stayed out of the Government and permitted the Conservative Parties, including the Radical Socialists, to take full responsibility for the failure to help the Spanish in their fight against international Fascism, if and when it triumps, will be able to attack France in the rear; had they permitted the Conservative Parties to take the complete onus for undermining the conditions of the life of the masses; had they laid the Munich Pact and everything that led up to it and followed it, at the door of the classes whose interests were not there betrayed — had they done all this, it is altogether likely that France would now have had a Socialist government supported by a majority of the people.”

nextweek: Hook on Spain, and Hook’s explanation of the ‘theoretical confusions’ that attend discussions of  Popular Frontism.t

 

 

Anatomy of the Popular Front. Sidney Hook. PR, vol. 6, no.3, Spring 1939.

Part I: Sidney Hook sets the Stage.

Sidney Hook, known to my generation as a Marxist who became a Cold Warrior, has, over the years, become something of a sadder and truer icon: not as a Stalinist, but as an intellectual whose clarity of argument and presentation in his early writings gave way to apologetics for Capitalism, in battle against Communism, and led him to denounce the New Left of 1968. You can look back to my post of 27 May, 2017 about “Sidney Hook’s uses of Logical Positivism,” to find a more benignant understanding of Hook, and an example of the silliness of Reed College students in the 1970s (the example being me), if you want a different entry into his work.

In fact, Hook was a serious philosopher who was a student of Dewey’s Pragmatism, with an early commitment to socialism and soviet communism, and it was only with the rise of Stalinism and the Communist party’s advocacy of Popular Front politics in the war against Fascism and Nazism that he felt that the revolutionary thrust of the United Front had been de-fanged by the ideology of the Popular Front, with its authorising of stable Capitalism as the  defence against the Fascists.

Before looking more closely at Hook’s arguments about the Popular Front, it is worth noting that he was dogged by criticism throughout his distinguished career at NYU

In the 1960’s,  Hook was criticized by the New Left for his positions on the Vietnam War, racial quotas and academic freedom.

He maintained during the American war effort in Indochina that, while a withdrawal of American forces was desirable, it should come only in conjuction with a similar action by the North Vietnamese.

Professor Hook criticized quotas in university admissions designed to redress racial imbalances, calling them perversions of the concept of equality of opportunity. And, while he debated publicly with Bertrand Russell, Hook criticized American universities for refusing to allow Russell to teach in this country because of his political views.

In this blog, we have had lots of articles about the Popular Front, and the damage it caused for any revolutionary position in WWII.  But it is interesting to hear Hook’s analysis of it from the position of a wavering fellow-traveler, and in response to a widely read book by Max Lerner, Its Later Than You Think,  which Hook describes as “one of the few earnest attempts to make sense of a policy which almost the entire Left is following despite the tragic results of such policies wherever they have been tried.  For this reason, if for no other, the book deserves the attention of every student of the American political scene.”

itslaterthanyouthinkMax Lerner Max Lerner

Hook points out that many intellectuals on the Left have already praised the Lerner book, particularly those who support the Roosevelt Administration: “The upshot of the book is an argument to show why anyone who accepts socialism should support an American Popular Front.”

Hook is clear that there is a crisis of political revaluation going on, but rather than being about the reformulation of ideas, it has instead been in “the form of strategical maneuvers, new combinations, with an eye to the day to day situation, not to a long term perspective.”  And so there has been a splitting and quarrelling and the proliferation of small groups, all on the outs with each other: who are they?: “The Social Democrats, Communists, Laborites,  Farmer-Laborites, some Socialists, the liberals and progressives of indeterminate hue who sleep in a different political bed every Election Day. All, practically but the Bolshevist-Leninists, who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since 1917, and who in their simplistic thinking, imagine the only alternative to the murderous despotism of Stalin, is the ‘enlightened’ minority one-party dictatorship of Lenin, out of which Stalin grew…” Hook was supportive of the Trotskyists, and he worked for his mentor, Dewey’s tribunal to exonerate Trotsky.  SO he has a kind of floating critique, not entirely from a party position , but from his philosophical training which often makes one liable to maverick peculiarity (think, for example, of Christopher Hitchens’s random political positions after he moved from the UK to Vanity Fair, etc.).

Hook takes Lerner’s arguments seriously, in particular Lerner’s position  that Liberalism now [that is the late 1930s] has to incorporate the influences and pressures of ‘democratic collectivism,’ if it aims to further its own values and ideals. Yet, Lerner sees that the consequences of its internal movement leads to the perils of capitalism: “economic crises, fascism, and war.”  Hook says that Lerner understands that “the Left, Right, and Centre’ are cursed either by sectarianism or opportunism”.  And therefore, “The only alternative that remains is a Popular Front opposed to reaction for the defence of whatever democracy now exists.” What Lerner is going for is a Labor Party to be formed, outside the Popular Front.

Next Week:   Part II:  Lerner anticipates his critics, and Hook replies

 

 

“We Rented to the Lenins,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring 1939

Krupskaja_1890  Krupskya

 

“We Rented to the Lenins,” is a sort of ‘human interest’ anecdote by a Swiss cobbler and his wife who rented space in their house in Zurich to Lenin and his wife, Krupskya,  in 1917.  As the editors note, this unusual piece for PR contains ‘naive and shrewd comments’ about the Lenins’ domestic life in exile.  It also gives us a portrait of Lenin’s wife, Krupskya, who was his colleague, carer, and a serious writer-revolutionary herself.

IMG_0340

IMG_0343

IMG_0346

For those of you who are reading on a Saturday morning, here is something that also sheds some light on Krupskya, written after her death by Leon Trotsky:

Leon Trotsky

Krupskaya’s Death

(March 1939)

Written: 4 March 1939.
Source: New International [New York], Vol. V No. 4, April 1939, p. 117.

“IN ADDITION TO being Lenin’s wife which – by the way, was not accidental – Krupskaya was an outstanding personality in her devotion to the cause, her energy and her purity of character. She was unquestionably a woman of intelligence. It is not astonishing, however, that while remaining side by side with Lenin, her political thinking did not receive an independent development. On far too many occasions, she had had the opportunity to convince herself of his correctness, and she became accustomed to trust her great companion and leader. After Lenin’s death Krupskaya’s life took an extremely tragic turn. It was as if she were paying for the happiness that had fallen to her lot.

Lenin’s illness and death – and this again was not accidental – coincided with the breaking point of the revolution, and the beginning of Thermidor. Krupskaya became confused. Her revolutionary instinct came into conflict with her spirit of discipline. She made an attempt to oppose the Stalinist clique, and in 1926 found herself for a brief interval in the ranks of the Opposition. Frightened by the prospect of split, she broke away. Having lost confidence in herself, she completely lost her bearings, and the ruling clique did everything in their power to break her morally. On the surface she was treated with respect, or rather with semi-honors. But with the apparatus itself she was systematically discredited, blackened and subjected to indignities, while in the ranks of the YCL the most absurd and gross scandal was being spread about her.

Stalin always lived in fear of a protest on her part. She knew far too much. She knew the history of the party. She knew the place that Stalin occupied in this history. All of the latter day historiography which assigned to Stalin a place alongside of Lenin could not but appear revolting and insulting to her. Stalin feared Krupskaya just as he feared Gorky. Krupskaya was surrounded by an iron ring of the GPU Her old friends disappeared one by one; those who delayed in dying were murdered either openly or secretly. Every step she took was supervised. Her articles appeared in the press only after interminable, insufferable and degrading negotiations between the censors and the author. She was forced to adopt emendations in her text, either to exalt Stalin or to rehabilitate the GPU. It is obvious that a whole number of vilest insertions of this type was made against Krupskaya’s will, and even without her knowledge. What recourse was there for the unfortunate crushed woman? Completely isolated, a heavy stone weighing upon her heart, uncertain what to do, in the toils of sickness, she dragged on her burdensome existence.

To all appearances, Stalin has lost the inclination to stage sensational trials which have already succeeded in exposing him before the whole world as the dirtiest, the most criminal and most repulsive figure in history. Nevertheless, it is by no means excluded that some sort of new trial will be staged, wherein new defendants will relate how Kremlin physicians under the leadership of Yagoda and Beria took measures to expedite Krupskaya’s demise.

But with or without the aid of physicians, the regime that Stalin had created for her undoubtedly cut short her life.

Nothing can be further from our mind than to blame Nadezhda Konstantinovna for not having been resolute enough to break openly with the bureaucracy. Political minds, far more independent than hers, vacillated, tried to play hide and seek with history – and perished. Krupskaya was to the highest degree endowed with a feeling of responsibility. Personally she was courageous enough. What she lacked was mental courage. With profound sorrow we bid farewell to the loyal companion of Lenin, to an irreproachable revolutionist and one of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history.”

March 4, 1939
L.T.

Next Week:”The Anatomy of the Popular Front,” by Sidney Hook

 

 

 

 

“Life on a Battleship,” Wallace Stevens

The second poem of Stevens in the Spring, 1939 issue of Partisan Review, “Life on a Battleship,” was one of the few that he left out of his Collected Poems of 1954, as he had left it out of Parts of a World, the volume he next published in 1942.   There have been  recent attempts to admire it, or at least, to prove Stevens’s engagement the topics of politics and art, politics and literature, Stalinism and Trotskyism that the Partisan Review had been addressing from 1937 through WWII.  Since the 1960s there has been even more urgent and complex arguments to grant to lyric poets the credentials of political activism and political understanding. You won’t have missed it, I am certain.  And its just as true that poets aiming to address political topics have flourished over the last 70 years, keeping up with the human and natural crises that require elegiac as well as sharp-edged lyricism.

Wallace Stevens met and admired Philip Rahv and the two poems in the Spring 1939 issue of PR,  must be counted among those of a lyric poet who aims at contemporaneity.  But where “I knew a Woman who had more Babies than That,” makes a ironises and makes “wild” as Harold Bloom said of the poem, the political external world, “Life on the Battleship” begins in the now but abstracts from it not ideas of reality but of a false comedy of the arrogant captain.

Here it is: see what you think of it. Let me know.

LIFE ON A BATTLESHIP

I. The rape of the bourgeoisie accomplished, the men
Returned on board the “Masculine”. That night,
The captain said,
“The war between classes is
A preliminary, provincial phase,
Of the war between individuals. In time,
When earth has become a paradise, it will be
A paradise full of assassins. Suppose I seize
The ship, make it my own and, bit by bit,
Seize yards and docks, machinery and men,
As others have, and then, unlike the others,
Instead of building ships, in numbers, build
A single ship, a cloud on the sea, the largest
Possible machine, a divinity of steel,
Of which I am captain. Given what I intend,
The ship would become the centre of the world.
My cabin as the centre of the ship and I
As the centre of the cabin, the centre of
The divinity, the divinity’s mind, the mind
Of the world would have only to ring and ft!
It would be done. If, only to please myself,
I said that men should wear stone masks and, to make
The word respected, fired ten thousand guns
In mid-Atlantic, bellowing, to command,
It would be done. And once the thing was done,
Once the assassins wore stone masks and did
As I wished, once they fell backward when my breath
Blew against them or bowed from the hips, when I turned
My head, the sorrow of the world, except
As man is natural, would be at an end.”

II. So posed, the captain crafted rules of the world,
Regulae mundi, as apprentice of
Descartes:
First. The grand simplifications reduce
Themselves to one.
Of this the captain said,
“It is a lesser law than the one itself,
Unless it is the one itself, or unless
‘the Masculine’, much magnified, that cloud
On the sea, is both law and evidence in one,
As the final simplification is meant to be.
It is clear that it is not a moral law.
It appears to be what there is of life compressed
Into its own illustration, a divinity
Like any other, rex by right of the crown,
The jewels in his beard, the mystic wand,
And imperator because of death to oppose
The illustrious arms, the symbolic horns, the red
For battle, the purple for victory: But if
It is the absolute why must it be
This immemorial grandiose, why not
A cockle-shell, a trivial emblem great
With its final force, a thing invincible
In more than phrase? There’s the true masculine,
The spirit’s ring and seal, the naked heart.
It was a rabbi’s question. Let the rabbis reply.
It implies a flaw in the battleship, a defeat
As of a make-believe.

III. Second. The part
Is the equal of the whole.
The captain said,
“The ephebi say that there is only the whole,
The race, the nation, the state. But society
Is a phase. We approach a society
Without a society, the politicians
Gone, as in Calypso’s isle or in Citare,
Where I or one or the part is the equal of
The whole. The sound of a dozen orchestras
May rush to extinguish the theme, the basses thump
And the fiddles smack, the horns yahoo, the flutes
Strike fire, but the part is the equal of the whole,
Unless society is a mystical mass.
This is a thing to twang a philosopher’s sleep,
A vacuum for the dozen orchestras
To fill, the grindstone of antiquest time,
Breakfast in Paris, music and madness and mud,
The perspective squirming as it tries to take
A shape, the vista twisted and burning, a thing
Kicked through the roof, caressed by the river-side.
On “the Masculine” one asserts and fires the guns.
But one lives to think of this growing, the pushing life,
The vine, at the roots, this vine of Key West, splurging,
Covered one morning with blue, one morning with white,
Coming from the East, forcing itself to the West,
The jungle of tropical part and tropical whole.”

IV

The first and second rules are reconciled                                                                                                  In a Third: The Whole cannot exist without/The parts(part IV continues on this photo)

IMG_0309

Next Week: “We Rented to the Lenins”