William Troy, “A Further Note on Myth”

UnknownThe debate about Thomas Mann’s novels and his place as liberal or socialist still occupied members of the Partisan Review coterie, and in this follow-up essay by William Troy, also in Vol.6,No 1, he returns to his original topic of Mann & Myth {see this blog,October 14, 2017, & November 4, 2017, for related discussions}. You can cut and paste the link below into your browser to read the entire essay.


In this argument about myth, however, he redirects his analysis, looks at the functions and alterations of myth within literature, and by the end of the piece, derives lessons for the contemporary world from within what will seem to be an abstract language.  I find it to be a great improvement on his original discussion of Mann as mythmaker because it clarifies ‘myth’ as a imaginative structure that is, first, not available to what his generation thought of as the scientificity and hence objectivity of Marxism. And he is also able to see what the dreadful possibilities of myth can be in the age of Fascism.

James Burnham’s criticism of Troy’s earlier essay on Mann took as its object Troy’s disparagement of science: “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.”

Troy’s response is to open the ‘scientific’  Marxist method to its own process: “The procedure of the scientific analysis of literature is as follows: the isolation of one or another aspect of the object, the reference of this aspect to an already completed scientific or quasi-scientific structure of logic (philosophical, psychological, or political), and the evaluation of the whole in terms of the latter. The apparent  effort is to replace the original concrete aesthetic structure by an altogether abstract structure of thought.   But, as a matter of fact, the aesthetic  structure has not been affected at all. It retains its original imponderable structure”. The idea that literature can be understood scientifically presupposes, as Burnham does, that “what we call works of literature are material objects produced by the conscious will of man” (Burnham). But, asks Troy, ” Is literature an object like a sewing machine, and of what is it the product? But what that means is that a literary work can be known, just like a piece of paper. 

What Troy offers in place of science is myth, because the production of imaginative literature requires a different mode of cognition: mythic. That is, he writes, myth is found in all the literatures of the world; myth is a method and a body of ordered experience. And, perhaps most importantly, myth is the foundational structure of imaginative literature over time. And through the movement of time, myths are changed and reinterpreted to offer new meanings and are altered from new sources.

Now the reason that some people respond even to the sound of the word myth with horror and trepidation is that they confuse the notion of myth as the particular equilibriums of the past with the notion of myth as a process. They fail to recognise that  for society, as for the individual, the materials of experience undergo an unbroken process of modification and change. If an individual does not achieve a fresh reordering of these materials, as Freud has explained, he will relapse into a former state of equilibrium, which is indistinguishable from the state of death.” 

“In brief, it must be understood that while every myth corresponds only to a temporary resolution of a conflict, the conflict itself itself is ever alive, ever becoming involved in new terms of experience, and ever seeking a resolution. In every epoch there are the old myths of the past, haunting the present like a fixation of childhood, and the new myths struggling to be born. And it is a mistake not to be able to tell them apart”.

SO Troy not only rescues an analytically persuasive argument for the importance of myth as a literary form, but also weaves into it a warning and a perspective on the fascist myths and their danger as well as their advance into a ‘state of death,’  I think this piece as an addendum to the earlier piece by Troy on Mann and Myth makes a good case for why understanding the structure of myth in literature can indeed be a crucial tool in making sense of one’s own time’s myths– the dead and the living.


D.S. Savage’s “Little Anthology of British Poets,”

Dear Readers:  The next piece in Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.1 is an Anthology of Poems assembled by D.S.Savage.  Having neglected to heed the advice of reason, and hence not getting a flu jab, I am now unable to do much better than wheeze and  cough.  SO I have decided to re-post this week some paragraphs from my earlier post about D.S. Savage, who was such an interesting and somewhat eccentric poet, and which will serve as the preface to the ‘Little Anthology’ in Partisan Review:  I hope this will give you some interesting reading. The poems are by important poets: David Gascoyne, the Surrealist Poet, Dylan Thomas, George Barker, and a few others, and they were all inflected by the malaise and fear of late 1938.

So who was D.S. Savage?   Well, he too was a revolutionary defeatist in the sense that he was a pacifist, and today we might think of him as  a member of the ‘simple living’ movement of late capitalism.  He grew up in Hertfordshire  and he said that he became a pacifist at 13 years old, when he saw wounded and mutilated soldiers of WWI in the hospital where Savage was being treated for leg injuries from playing football.  I imagine that the editors at Partisan Review  were interested in a poet-pacifist, since Trotsky had written and spoken about the relationship between pacifism and revolutionary  defeatism.

‘Only very slight injury can be done to the machinery of war of the ruling class by pacifism. This is best proved by the courageous but rather futile efforts of Russell himself during the war. The whole affair ended in a few thousand young people being thrown into prison on account of their conscientious objections…. In the old Tsarist army the sectarians, and especially the Tolstoyans, were often exposed to persecution because of their passive resistance to militarism; it was not they, however, who solved the problem of the overthrow of Tsarism.’ (L.D. Trotsky, ‘On Pacifism and Revolution’, 1926, written in reply to a review by Bertrand Russell of Trotsky’s book Where Is Britain Going?)

By 1938, Trotsky had become more open to what pacifism might contribute to revolutionary defeatism.

‘Bourgeois pacifism and patriotism are shot through with deceit. In the pacifism and even the patriotism of the oppressed there are elements which reflect on the one hand a hatred of destructive war and on the other a clinging to what they believe to be their own good elements which we must know how to seize upon in order to draw the requisite conclusions. Using these considerations as its point of departure, the Fourth International supports every, even if insufficient, demand, if it can draw the masses to a certain extent into active politics, awaken their criticism and strengthen their control over the machinations of the bourgeoisie.’ (L.D. Trotsky, Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, 1938.)

Though he had left organised religion in his youth, he was reconfirmed at St. Paul’s and added a commitment to living sparely and simply to his pacifism. Savage’s first pamphlet of poetry, The Autumn World was published by Reginald Caton’s Fortune Press in 1939, after Caton’s press, under the watchful eye of the Law, stopped printing gay erotica and porn.  Caton turned to poetry, and  also  published early work by Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin, as well as Savage’s  The Autumn World.

He married in 1938, and when the poems were published, he and his wife  moved to a village near Cambridge, where, Alison Olson wrote in an  2007 obituary of Savage, the couple lived in a condemned cottage without water, light or sanitation in Dry Drayton, Cambridgeshire.

Savage  remained a pacifist, and in 1940 he taken to a tribunal on that account.  He was ridiculed as a coward, but he felt that war was a manner of ” legalised murder”. In 1944, he moved to Bromsash Hertforshire, where the family — they had six children — lived in a pacifist  market-gardening village. Savage was committed to simple living, Anglicanism,     and Pacifism.

In 1947, Savage discovered the pleasures of Cornwall and the literary-artistic community around St.Ives  The family moved to Mevagissey, and he became friends with the poet W.S. Graham, Nessie Dunsmuir, and also knew Roger Hilton.  The Savages  lived  in the  Heligan Woods, continuing his decision to live a life of poverty. They went without  running water, and had no oven. Savage took the family dinners to be cooked in the Village Oven, part of a long-time community ritual.  He did move from the Heligan Woods into the Village after two years and lived there until his death in 2007.

Savage is known to many as a  literary critic, who wrote The Withered Branch against the modernist novel in the 1950s. But in 1938, he was beginning a life of asceticism, piety, pacifism, and poetry.

“My central idea,” he wrote, “is the necessary unity of poetry, religion and politics in integrity. Politics needs to be ethically grounded and pacifism is the ethical ground of political action.”

As the day slips away now for this ailing blogger, I think I can understand why the urban and urbane, Jewish and non-Jewish, Trotskyists and non-Trotskyists in New York in 1938 might be pleased with this young poet: ascetic, simple in his habits,  clear in his commitments and with a wife and child living in a Hertfordshire Village, and so free of contradictions.  Savage as an adamant pacifist and a Christian and a socialist and a poet, was a comfort in a way, and his poems, not very loud, and not very brilliant, give the reader a chance to rest a moment before 1938 moves on to its bitter end.
Here are the poems…IMG_0489.
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“The Devil-Theory”: A Reply to Edmund Wilson’s Critique of the ‘Dialectic’ — William Phillips, Vol.6, No.1

Photograph of Edmund Wilson [n.d.]
Edmund Wilson
“As against those who would mummify Marxism into a system of eternal truths, one can only welcome the irreverent and civilised approach of Edmund Wilson. . .. . Wilson, however is not concerned with bringing Marxism up to date; on the contrary he has set out to prove that Marxism is alien to modern thought and he all but urges that it de deported back to the nineteenth century.” Thus begins William Phillips’s response to Wilson’s piece.

Phillips charges that Wilson, by placing the dialectic at the centre of his argument, and deriving all parts of the theory from it without regard to the movement of history itself, turns living Marxism into a static polemic. So, while Phillips agrees with Wilson’s argument about the difficulties of thinking of Marxism as a modern science, he thinks that Wilson has chosen the wrong topic: he should be looking at its philosophy of history. Here, Marx indeed thought of the dialectic of history in relation to the stages of his model. And so the historical movement from Greek and Roman slaves systems through feudalism, capitalism, and then to Socialism. Importantly, it was not a natural dialectic at work here, but an historical one – developed through and in relation to actual human consciousness.

William PhillipsIgnoring this distinction as well as the empirical evidence which Marx cited to prove  his theory, Wilson simply attaches all the odium of the ‘natural dialectic’ to Marx’s laws of history. Yet the actual conclusions of Marx and Engels about the direction of history were not derived from the Dialectic, but were arrived at inductively through a study of political and economic facts. Surely, Mr. Wilson cannot hope to bury all this scientific in the grave of the dialectic..”

Phillips next defends the Marxist approach to ‘inevitability’ against what he takes to be Wilson’s idea that Marx was preaching patience and inevitability in a passive way. He says:
“All that can be said– and all that he did say was that the alternative to [socialism] is barbarism or chaos: nor has the evidence of history from the upheavals of 1848 to the October Revolution and the Spanish Civil War provided any refutation of Marx’s political theories.”
  Marx, that is, was a revolutionary activist.  Yes, admits Phillips, Marx may have spoken of the inevitability of socialism, but only if Marx’s model was right, that is.  And anyway, Phillips writes that Marx was an agitator, so give him a little rhetorical slack.

Next in his criticism of Wilson comes the issue of the ‘last instance’ a discussion that is certainly not settled in the late 1930s. You have only to consider Louis Althusser’s insistence on the importance of the ‘last instance’ – which in the 1970s and early 1980s was often seen as the Euro-Communist answer to the brutality of the ‘Tankies’ and their supporters in the  theory-wars —  What Wilson writes is, indeed, vague about the problems of the superstructure, problems which many over the last 50 years have tried to solve or at least model in more productive ways than simply the ‘superstructure ‘reflects’ or more analytically, is produced by the ‘base.’

But what is most galling to Phillips is that Wilson metaphorises Marxism as a ‘myth, ’ which is a serious blow to the status of the model itself.  But this, is a way is part of the problem of the last instance itself. Wilson has just been finishing his history, To the Finland Station, a strong narrative of the philosophical pre-history of the October Revolution, and he is aiming, I would say, to draw in readers who need to know more of what happens in lived experience to ideas and concepts. That he draws on the category of myth for discussing what he sees as a pathway that some accept as the core of Marxist thinking – the Dialectic – and in doing so clarifies that this pathway leads back into Idealism, is an important caveat to the reductionism that has plagued revolutionary Marxism, as we know.

Phillips next defends the Marxist approach to ‘inevitability’ against what he takes to be Wilson’s idea that Marx was preaching patience and inevitability in a passive way. He says:
“All that can be said– and all that he did say was that the alternative to [socialism] is barbarism or chaos: nor has the evidence of history from the upheavals of 1848 to the October Revolution and the Spanish Civil War provided any refutation of Marx’s political theories.”
  Marx, that is, was a revolutionary activist.  Yes, admits Phillips, Marx may have spoken of the inevitability of socialism, but only if Marx’s model — that of “social action” was right, that is.  And anyway, Phillips thinks of Marx was an agitator, so we should give Marx a little rhetorical slack.

But what is most galling to Phillips is that Wilson metaphorises Marxism as a ‘myth, ’ which is a serious blow to the status of the model itself.  But this, is a way is part of the problem of the last instance itself. Wilson has just been finishing his history, To the Finland Station, a strong narrative of the philosophical pre-history of the October Revolution, and he is aiming, I would say, to draw in readers who need to know more of what happens in lived experience to ideas and concepts. That he draws on the category of myth for discussing what he sees as a pathway that some accept as the core of Marxist thinking – the Dialectic – and in doing so clarifies that this pathway leads back into Idealism, is an important caveat to the reductionism that has plagued revolutionary Marxism, as we know.

Phillips’s main argument is that Marx’s empiricism was a function of his commitment to what Phillips calls a ‘way of  life.’   The problems that Marxism presents can be avoided “only by seeing Marxism as a philosophy of social action.”

He goes on:  “Marxism is  way of life: a way of  acting, thinking, feeling… it also reflects the moral needs of the proletariat.” Phillips thus finds that cultural and emotional aspects of Marxism are indeed the way in which the superstructure acts as a conduit of creativity to the proletariat.  His polemical voice breaks out here: “The value of Kant’s system, for example is hardly a live issue outside the classroom; whereas the Marxism is debated in the streets, gaining new supporters when the working class is flushed with victories, and losing them after defeats.”  Phillips gives a reading of Marxism here as in movement always and always attached to, as he had said often, the state of consciousness of humans themselves.  


Edmund Wilson on “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic” Vol. 6, No.1


WIlson McCarthyIf you have been reading here for a while, you know that the marriage of Edmund Wilson to Mary McCarthy in 1938 lasted long enough, was complex enough, and tempestuous enough to keep people talking about it over the decades. And they were writing about it as, in the later 1980s, when the great stream of narrative books about the people and politics of Partisan became a summer reading holiday for those who still had cottages in Amagansett, or who were students at Columbia and were readying themselves for their futures. Not least, young women trying to find out if it was going to be Sontag or McCarthy who would be a decent model for an intellectual life.

James Atlas offered a list of these books in 1985, in an article in the New York Times:“The surest sign of any group’s demise is the appearance of memoirs, and the New York intellectuals have been busy writing theirs: Lionel Abel’s ”The Intellectual Follies,” William Phillips’s ”A Partisan View,” Irving Howe’s ”A Margin of Hope” and William Barrett’s ”The Truants” have appeared in the last three years( 1982-1985)”. Atlas quotes Morris Dickstein: ”The definition of a New York intellectual is to think he’s the last one,” and I would think that Atlas thinks that of himself, with his recent history of himself,  along with others of my generation, including Louis Menand (though not in NY — though NY is, we know, a state of mind) — anyway, the marriage of McCarthy and Wilson is one of the central social events among the NYI, or as we called them at home, the JIs — Jewish intellectuals, though neither Wilson or McCarthy was jewish, ‘either by birth or osmosis’ as Irving Howe had defined a characteristic of the New York Intellectual.

Which is to say that the Wilson-McCarthy marriage brought high literary, high cultural, and high art criteria in to the PR office on 17th street.  Which isn’t to say that Wilson, educated at the Hill School and then at Princeton, friend and patron of F.Scott Fitzgerald, wasn’t  part of the 1930s interest in the Soviet Union, Socialism, Communism, and as a critic reader, Marx and Engels.  Though he was older than Rahv and McDonald and the rest, they welcomed him to their office, and asked him to write for the PR, while Mary McCarthy, as Frances Kiernan writes, ‘[for] this occasion Mary McCarthy wore her best black dress and carried a silver fox stole— a costume “more suited to a wedding reception,” she would later recall. As it happens a drunken dinner with Wilson and a few others, and what should have been a casual affair, became McCarthy’s awkward agreement to marry him.  She also later said that she thought that if she slept with him, she had to marry him.“So finally I agreed to marry Wilson as my punishment for having gone to bed with him— this was certainly part of the truth. As a modern girl, I might not have called that a “sin”; I thought in logical rather than religious terms. The logic of having slept with Wilson compelled the sequence of marriage if that was what he wanted. Otherwise my action would have no consistency; in other words, no meaning. I could not accept the fact that I had slept with this fat, puffing man for no reason, simply because I was drunk. No, it had to make sense. Marrying him, though against my inclinations, made it make sense.”

You might recall as well, that she was deeply involved with the man who she later wrote was the only one who she truly loved, Philip Rahv.


Now, Wilson was very interested in Marx and Freud and if you look back , you can read his wonderful essay on “Flaubert’s Politics,” which featured in the first issue of PR. The essay here, “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic,” is a chapter from Wilson’s highly regarded history of ideas of socialism and communism, To the Finland Station, which would be published in 1940. William Philips writes a response to it, which immediately follows in this issue of PR, and he takes a rather severe approach to Wilson’s argument. {I have to say that I find William Philips’s writing to be hard-going and at times gratingly insistent}.  But Wilson’s galaxy was close to but not the same as that of PR, and there is little evidence that his growing reputation as a literary critic and intellectual was tarnished by his discussion.

Wilson begins by looking at the history of the idea of a dialectic in philosophy, principly the Hegelian dialectic, in which a thesis is a stated position, its antithesis is ‘a process of splitting of from the thesis, and negating it; the third is a new unification, which reconciles the antithesis with the thesis and is known as the synthesis.. . the synthesis is always an advance over the thesis, for it combines in a ‘higher’ unification the best features of both the thesis and the antithesis’. Hegel makes the argument through a discussion of the changes inherent in the movement from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

This is what Marx and Engels take into thinking about the future, rather than an analysis of the past: they have the thesis as   bourgeois society, the antithesis as the proletariat, and as synthesis, the Communist society. So, as Marx argued, what he and Engels did was to take Hegel’s categories and turn them ‘right-side up,’ that is, to understand ideas as the product of human making, “ALL IDEAS WERE HUMAN,” and every ‘idea was bound up with some specific social situation, which had been produced in the first instance, in turn, by man’s relation to specific material conditions.”

Wilson’s criticism of the ‘dialectic’ is that for Marx, no less than for Hegel, this dialectic is itself idealist. But only insofar as the ideas that humans make are themselves generated by material life.  Wilson’s targets are what today we call “reductionists”, collapsing the dialectical framework to the more structural one of base/superstructure, in which all those things which are not part of the basic apparatus of economic life are reduced to being offshoots of that base. Wilson argues that Marx and Engels didn’t ever really get round to discussing seriously those elements of superstructure: religions, ideologies, psychic life, etc. because they had enough to do right at hand.

But a problem for Marx and Engels was the status of their analysis as ‘science’. Was ‘science’ an element of the superstructure or was it an objective discourse? In the 21st century ‘science’ is more awkwardly theorised that it was at the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.  Wilson writes: “Natural science then, is not to be numbered among the ideological outgrowths of the super­stucture, but has a precision of which they are incapable; and this precision social science may share.”   Can the ‘dialectic’ of marxism really be admitted as a ‘science?’  Some of the attempts in the 20th century to hold on to that argument have had to resort to re-making it as a structure instead, linked to psychoanalysis, another theory in trouble. Or simply holding on to the ‘science’ part of ‘social science,’ without much of an audience or a rationale. Wilson thinks that if they had only stayed away from trying to ‘scientise’ the dialectic, they would have avoided what ends up looking like a form of ‘mysticism’ or “a religious myth, disencumbered of divine personality and tied up with the history of mankind.”


copy and paste to read full text of “The Myth of the Marxist Dialectic”pp 66-81

next week: William Philips replies to Wilson.

Blumfeld: An Elderly Bachelor, Franz Kafka.


In the first issue of Partisan Review is a review by F.W. Dupee, of Kafka’s The Trial, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, and published  by the prestigious New York firm of  Alfred A. Knopf in 1937.  From then on, Kafka became something of a presiding spirit over the imaginary persona of the Partisan Review. Starting with Dupee’s  review, between 1937 and 1944 , PR published an essay on Kafka in 1938 by Max Brod, his biographer; between 1939 and 1942, three Kafka short stories; in 1944, “Kafka: A Re-evaluation,” by Hannah Arendt; and in 1946, a section from Kafka’s diaries.   And there were many more discussions about Kafka through the next four decades of Partisan Review. Arendt looks for what makes Kafka so modern:

All his admirers …are struck  by something new in his art of story-telling, a quality of modernity which appears nowhere else with the same  intensity and unequivocalness. … ” And she goes on to make a case for his simple style as a form of modernism:‘Without in any way changing the German Language, he stripped it of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence.”

 It was also the case that the  NY Intellectuals wanted their journal to show not only America on the verge of great change, but also a connection to and  yearning for their European connections and origins.  Franz Kafka was Jewish, troubled, and a ‘problem’ to his father. He died in 1924 at 41 of tuberculosis, with a fairly small oeuvre and a voice that moves between the ‘fabulous and the familiar,’ as Dupee described it, creating a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity common to both German Expressionism and Modernism.   (for more of this, turn to post of 21 July, 2017, which begins with the three paragraphs above…..)

In this issue, Vol 6,.No 1. and No.2, we have a story by Kafka, Blumfeld: an Elderly Bachelor.  It was written around 1915, and it has a feeling of DADA about it, and even though it is funny, it has none of the joy of DADA.  It was left unfinished when Kafka diedKafka, and we don’t know much about what he had planned for its continuation either as a longer story, or as part of a novel.  What became clear to me as I have roamed the internet picking up comments about the story, is that very few readers care that it isn’t finished: they treat it as complete because it belongs to the genre that Hannah Arendt called ‘the analysis of bureaucracy,’ and that we can assume it will go on, if it does, in the same vein as The Trial and The Castle, and as it has already been going. 

What also struck me as I read the story was how much like Melville’s Bartleby our ‘hero’ was in his behaviour — except inside out.  While Bartleby ‘prefers not to’  Blumfeld ‘prefers to.” Bartleby’s is the power of silence and passive resistance, while Blumfeld’s is the power of  low-key insistence. Both are in struggle with the conventions of their oppression, but Blumfeld has internalised them so thoroughly that they become his now impotent being. He is the next step in Arendt’s discussion of Kafka’s work as the analysis of bureaucracy.

‘Blumfeld’ is ‘ a man hounded by bouncing balls’. He comes home to his sixth-floor apartment, musing (and amusing) on the pros and cons of having a dog to keep him company, when he hears a rattling sound from within. He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light. He is not prepared for what he sees. For this is magic – two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the wooden floor; when one of them touches the floor the other is in the air, a game they continue ceaselessly to play.

What makes the story itself powerful is the way the narrator keeps it comic, with a continual juxtaposition of Blumfeld’s internal dialogue about the pros and cons of owning a dog, which never is resolved because Blumfeld’s is a mind that is always ready with an ambivalent response to his own query. Here is the link for you to copy and paste to read the story:first part:   http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283915.  pages 55-64; second part: Vol 6, No.2, pages 96-103.

Hannah Arendt’s   “Kafka. A Revaluation” was published in Partisan Review, Vol 11, No.4, pages 412-422,  cut and paste: http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283952      Or you can wait till we get there!  1944…jeez



Next week: Edmund Wilson on Marxist Dialectics




Andre Breton & Trotsky and Diego Rivera: Manifesto.

You may remember that the ‘Our Quarter’ editorial for Volume 6, No. 1 began with a discussion of a new activist group:the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art: here is that paragraph again.

 “Andre Breton, a founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, and Diego Rivera, the painter of the  Mexican Revolution, are two artists who have long been active on the Left.  Some time ago they rejected the Third International (the Comintern, 1919-1943), politically as well as culturally. They now propose a new federation of artists and writers, Left-wing in tendency and free of all organizational dependence. [In this issue] we print their manifesto calling for the formation of the International Federation of Independent  Revolutionary Art. An increasing number of writers, artists, and intellectuals are coming to realize that socialism offers the only permanent escape from barbarism that is gaining ground so fast in capitalist society. We believe that these intellectual forces, hitherto scattered and isolated, should now draw together into some sort of organization for free discussion and for defense against their common enemies. We are, therefore, in complete sympathy with the general aim of the IFIRA, and we are ready to take part in the formation of an American section of the Federation. This, we think, should incorporate the international aims of the IFIRA in a program otherwise strictly adapted to American conditions. We invite all those interested in forming such a group in the United States to communicate with the editors of Partisan Review.”

The Manifesto signed by Breton and Rivera was an attempt to create a leftist, anti-Stalinist, association of Artists that would be Marxist, but stand outside the artistic aims of socialist realism and and prolit cult. It was 1938, and it was clear that Stalin’s trials had betrayed the Revolution of 1917.  Scholars have argued that it was when Breton went to visit Trotsky, then living in exile in Mexico, that the two men drew up this ‘Manifesto,’ which was then signed by Rivera instead of Trotsky.

The Manifesto is part of a European network of socialist ideas that attracted anti-conventional, anti-conformist, and anti-war artists. It’s first and explosive appearance is with the group of Swiss artists who called themselves DADA. The Cafe Voltaire in Zurich was founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings in the middle of the First World War, and advanced an art of irrationality, anti-authoritarianism, allied with comic and satirical events — ancestors of 20th century Performance Art —  Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and others, including Andre Breton, joined them.

Andre Breton was an intellectual adventurer and after WWI, he announced the beginning of a new movement, which combined the attributes of DADA with those of Freudian analysis: He defined SURREALISM as  “pure psychic automatism by which one proposes to express, either verbally or in writing or otherwise, the actual functioning of the thought.”

Andre Breton by Man Ray
Andre Breton, by Man Ray

It was through Breton that SURREALISM attached itself to the idea of proletarian revolution and to the overthrow of bourgeois society.  Breton joined the Communist Party in 1924 and left in 1937 because of the Stalinist programme and the Moscow Trials.  This is the link to the Manifesto we are looking at today.  Trotsky was expelled from the Party in 1929,  and with the formation of the Fourth International, and Trotsky’s asylum in Mexico, Breton became a closer ally and went to visit him where he was living with Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

During his exile, Breton had the opportunity to meet Léon Trotsky. Together, they composed the manifesto for an independent revolutionary art.  Surrealism as a movement died in the 1950s. It was, as we shall learn more of, the attack on SURREALISM by Jean-Paul Sartre, who, through his entire career,  argued against  surrealism.

So, back to the Manifesto itself.

It begins with an assault on the geo-politics of 1938, and the force of its style is both politically radical and  anti-Stalinist: you will know from earlier posts that Trotsky was an advocate of freedom in artistic creation: “True Art,” the Manifesto repeats, “is unable not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society…We recognise that only the social revolution can sweep clear the path for a new culture.”   From there it is a small step to a denunciation of Stalin: “If we reject solidarity with the Soviet Union, it is because  it represents not Communism, but its most treacherous and dangerous enemy.”

So, because art is what conceives of the radical reconstruction of society, “The opposition of writers and artists is one of the forces that can usefully contribute to the discrediting and overthrow of regimes which are destroying, along with the right of the proletariat to aspire to a better world, every sentiment of nobility and even of human dignity.”

Trotsky and Breton both carry the romantic gene of creativity as central to their quite different positions on authority, struggle, and really, the functions of the imagination, but in this manifesto, the importance of the artistic spirit is critical to the political point. Much like our own days here in 2018 — its the death of imaginative  freedom that will thwart the Revolution.

The paragraph below is flung against the shadow of Stalinist ‘aesthetics’ and asserts the humanism that is marching both with anti-fascist Liberalism and against Stalinism:

“The free choice of themes and the absence of all restrictions on the range of [their] explorations – these are possessions of which the artist has the right to claim as inalienable. In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must, under no pretext, allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who would urge us, whether for today or tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal, and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula: complete freedom for art.”

To enable this, the authors of the manifesto suggest that even if we need centralised control over the building of the material conditions for improved production,  “an anarchist regime of individual liberty should first be established.”    

What an amazing demand!  I love it.

“In the present period of the death agony of capitalism, democratic as well as fascist, the artist sees himself threatened with the loss of his right to live. Only naturally, he turns to the Stalinist organizations, which hold out the possibility of escaping his isolation….He must understand that his place lies elsewhere, not among those who betray the cause of revolution, but among those who with unshaken fidelity bear witness to this revolution, among those who, for this reason, are alone able to bring it to its fruition.”

So, what happened to the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art?  In 1997, Frank Brenner of the [still active, if not very….active] 4th International, wrote about the fate of the IFIRA:

“It is instructive to note the fate of the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art (IFIRA) called into being by the 1938 manifesto. Breton was able to rally fellow Surrealists such as poet Benjamin Péret, painters Yves Tanguy and André Masson; Victor Serge, Marcel Martinet, Ignazio Silone, Herbert Read [who, in turn, solicited the support of George Orwell] and others. Despite this the French section ceased operations after the publication of two issues of its journal Clé (Key) in January and February 1939.

Internal differences played a part in the IFIRA’s failure to take root, but the greatest problem was the extremely difficult political environment: the influence within the intelligentsia of the Stalinist apparatus and the demoralized condition of many of those not under the latter’s thumb, as well, of course, as the outbreak of war in Europe. In his last letter to Trotsky in June 1939, Breton wrote: “Perhaps I am not very talented as an organizer, but at the same time it seems to me that I have run up against enormous obstacles. (The tragic element in this should not be lost on the reader.)

The tragic element is going to unfold even more dismally over the following months of 1938 and 1939.

Next Week: “Blumfeld, an elderly Bachelor”, by  Franz Kafka

Clark Mills “The Beggars: Place Edmond Rostand”

Welcome to 2018 — and to Partisan Review as the year turns from 1938-1939.  In both years we see war on the horizon, fear running through the veins of just about everyone, and a difficult but brave attempt by some to explain how this came to be.

Today’s post is about a poet, Clark Mills, who I only learned of when I turned the page from Silone’s “School of Dictators,” to “The Beggars”, of  Vol. 6,No 1, Fall, 1938.

Clark Mills’s contribution to the issue is a poem from and about Paris; about the state of poverty and dismay and exhaustion and malaise of the moment, and the moment’s personae: the beggars foraging around the ‘Place Edmond Rostand.’ Here: read it.


The spring awakening of the beggars who had retreated into their cold bodies during the winter is not as easily won as we might have expected. One, “lost in great sculptural folds of rotten cloth/ one sang, sang out with the crazy abandon of a bird of summer’s topmost branch — while all the others/ mistrust the season’s golden promise”. The natural release of Spring overhangs a darker crazed tension. Spring can’t be disengaged from those wintry horizons which ‘outstretched past and future.’

So, who was Clark Mills?  Its hard to find an image of him on the internet — here is the best I found — Clark Millsand there hasn’t been much written about him to my knowledge, but if you know different, please let me know.

Born  Clark Mills McBurney in 1913, he became friends with Tennessee Williams, when Williams, then Tom, and a group of fairly like-minded young writers became a group hanging around The Old Courthouse near Washington University in St. Louis, and much of what I learned about him comes from books that are about Tennessee Williams.

Alleati Hale, in Tom Williams, Proletarian Playwright, writes:”The Old Courthouse was also a weekly meeting place for a group of unconventional students from Washington University who had joined the St. Louis Union of Artists and Writers. Among them, Clark Mills was revered as a published poet, active in the university’s chapter of the national College Poetry Society. Williams had belonged to the chapter at Missouri University and, hungry for contacts outside the factory, sought out the poets at Washington. Although shy, he went to a literary meeting where Clark Mills was pointed out as that student who writes “crazy modern verse nobody understands but God and himself!” Williams who had just had his own verse published in four literary magazines, was instantly attracted. Mills would become a prime influence for his next few years, introducing him to the poetry of Rilke, Rimbaud, and Hart Crane, who became Williams’ idol. Until then, his model had been the St. Louis poet, Sara Teasdale, or the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Clark Mills, surnamed McBurney, French scholar, poet and intellectual, had another side. His father was a freight agent for the Union Pacific Railroad and one sister, Adeline, was a social welfare worker.Through them he was aware of the youths, hoboes, and homeless now riding the rails through America, of the strikes going on in St. Louis and of such events as the parade of two thousand local unemployed that ended in a riot. Clark may have been one of those students who heard Jack Conroy [AJ: A prominent CP ‘proletarian writer’]speak at the University and was inspired by his revolutionary fervor to help form the local Artists and Writers Union. Although not an actual labor union, it was loosely affiliated with the national John Reed Clubs organized by Conroy [Remember that Partisan Review emerged from the CP John Reed Club — and by the by so did my dad, Henry who was in the Paterson New Jersey John Reed Club, and also graduated to reading Partisan Review]

SO readers, here we are ready, to think about the past and the dreadful now and the possible futures along with the Paris beggars in 1938.

Next week we’ll look at the ‘Manifesto’ by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera that opened the “This Quarter”  section of this issue.


September, 1939. December, 2017.

swingstreet 52nd street NYC 1939

Dear Readers:

Its time for the winter break in our time, and we are coming near to the end of 1938 in our Journal’s time. I am going to take a break from posting next week, but will be back the following one: January 6, 2018.

Its been a terrible year for the world: not unlike it was in 1938.  The winds of poverty, homelessness, starvation, and the politics of the right-wing battering our lives with stupidity, crankiness, and cruelty.  1938 was a year of fear, defeat, fascism, and like today, it was hard to imagine a way out of the weariness.

This poem by W.H. Auden, written in the autumn of 1939 can, I think, be read as a retrospective introduction to the year ahead in Partisan Review.

September 1, 1939.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

See you back in 2018.    AJ

School for Dictators… Ignazio Silone.


Ignazio Silone

The next piece in Vol 6, No.1. Autumn 1938 is Ignazio Silone’s satirical and  quite brilliantly mordant excerpt from his forthcoming book, School for Dictators.  I think the best way to introduce the piece is to hand the introduction over to that also satirical, polemical, witty writer Dwight Macdonald, who reviewed Silone’s work in the April, 1939 issue of New International, VOl. V, no.4.:  This was the journal of the Fourth International, the Trotskyist Movement.

The School for Dictators
by Ignazio Silone
Harpers. $2.50

‘In this book Silone has written his masterpiece – a political satire that can be mentioned in the same breath with Aristophanes, Swift, and Voltaire. Nothing, indeed, is too much to be said for the book, except what the jacket blurb does say: “A master of prose attacks with bare fists the most absorbing single problem of our day. …” Silone uses almost every other weapon on fascism, from slapstick drollery to the most severely restrained irony, but his attack is effective precisely because it is not delivered with bare fists. His literary style is an admirable synthesis of the classic and conversational – dense but not heavy, closely wrought but always lucid. He is learned in political history and fertile of ideas, but he knows how to be easy and unpretentious about things, never parading his learning or insisting too much on his ideas. His book, in short, combines the virtues of good prose and good conversation.

Although the theme of The School for Dictators is modern politics, it will not do to seek from it any positive conclusions. Nor does his book tell us anything about politics we didn’t know already. In fact, it is often superficial and confused in its specifically political analysis. Its importance, like that of the earlier Bread and Wine, is that it applies a set of values – humane, honest, and intellectually sophisticated – to the political phenomena of today. To guard and cherish such a human norm, independent of political parties (though not of political tendencies), is a valuable function of the intellectual. I might add that the politicians of the left can gain from this book some excellent insights not only into the real nature of fascism but also into certain deficiencies of their own programs.

I have never been as much impressed by Silone’s novels as perhaps I should be. They have seemed to me to be episodic, even at times tainted with journalistic trickery – as in the abrupt “black-out” endings of certain chapters. The characters have often seemed one-dimensional and all too obviously designed to point the moral. In this book, however, these weaknesses become virtues. The stylization of the three principal persons in the dialogue is appropriate to the satirical intent, and the form is episodic as good conversation must be, one idea touching off another. I have been told, by the way, that Silone had planned to carry the dialogue much further, but was persuaded by his publishers to let this much appear now. If this is true, we may hope for another volume.

In another way, too, The School for Dictators seems to me an advance over the novels: in its subject matter. Fontamara had the qualities and the defects of a poster: it was an intellectual’s attempt to present, from above and outside, the most primitive sort of peasant life, simplifying its values towards a propagandist end. Bread and Wine opened up the focus, including the intellectual as well as the petty bourgeois and the peasant in its scope. Much the most interesting parts, to me, were the conversations between Don Benedetto and Don Paolo. These conversations have now expanded to become the body of the present book, a progression I find all for the best. Silone, after all, is an intellectual, a man of ideas, representing a high development of modern consciousness, and here he deals directly with the central themes of his intellectual experience. The easy play of his mind in this book is as natural as Fontamara, for all its effectiveness, was mannered. This raises the question why so few of the “creative” writers of today occupy themselves with politics as a theme. (Brecht’s novel, A Penny for the Poor, is another, though less successful, attempt to treat such subject matter.) There seems to be a blight on the novel and the short story today. I suggest this is partly because politics has come to occupy so much of our consciousness that what for so many generations has been called “creative” writing has come to seem tangential to the central issues. And I suggest that the political themes which preoccupied Dryden, Pope, Swift, Voltaire and the other great eighteenth century writers may once more regain their supremacy in this century, whose intellectual atmosphere is in many ways similar. The School for Dictators may prove to be a seminal work in this respect.”


AJ:  The piece itself is both stringently logical and very funny. The premise is that an American politician wishes to introduce Fascism to the United States (hum….relevant for the Trumpocracy.)  Mr. W, as the proto-fascist is known, has with him Professor Pickup, who has agreed to show Mr. W the ins and out of Fascist “mythologies its obscurities, its fetishes, and its idols, and on the modern technique of hypnotising and subduing the masses.” The counterweight is Thomas the Cynic, who is the voice of revolutionary politics, but always ends up in the cynicism of spirit within the revolutionary manque, the intellectual.

The plot opens with the speakers looking on the detritus of a scene of rape…hoping to understand what this means. Thomas the Cynic suggests it is the result of anthropological theorists, who argue for the ‘the psychology of atavistic inclinations,’ rather than the barbarism encouraged through fascist ideology. Again, rather than find other words for what Silone wrote, I suggest you click on the link below (in red font, go to image of issue on right, click to page 20) and read the piece for yourself. Its easy to see why Dwight McD. thought so much of it.

School for Dictators







More politics from “Our Quarter,” Vol. 6, No.1. 1938.

Others of the short pieces in “Our Quarter,” Vol.6, No.1, Fall, 1938 are about the Communist Party: those members who are supporting the ‘New Deal’ and the ‘Popular Front’,  and those who are repudiating Stalinism: Jeff Last of the Netherlands’s One Year in the Trenches of Madrid, and Nobel Prize winner, Romain Rolland, “in a sensational defection from the ranks of the Third International’s literary fellow-travellers, for years its most respectable and revered apologist in international cultural circles.” And of the most immediate interest to Partisan Review, “Reflections on a Non-Political Man.”

John Strachey

Communist Comedy: The first piece, “Communist Comedy” is about the State Department’s refusal to grant a visa to John Strachey, who had been a follower of Oswald Mosley, but then became a committed member of the British CP’s Popular Front position. In 1936, he became one of the founders of the Left Book Club. His pamphlet, Why You Should be a Socialist (1938), immediately sold 200,000 copies in Britain. Strachey was on his way to the USA to promote the positions of the CP and Popular Frontism.  The writer of this part of the ‘Our Quarter,’ who I think must have been Macdonald again, uses Henri Bergson’s essay on comedy as a point d’appui for his argument, pointing to Bergson’s well-known definition of the comic as “something mechanical [here the State Department] encrusted on the living.”   The joke, here, is that while the Communist Party “has been openly renouncing its revolutionary aims, openly supporting [FDR’s] New Deal and sabotaging radical movements against the New Deal,…the Party’s desperate efforts to make itself respectable have had practically no impression on bourgeois politicians, who continue to think of ‘Communists in terms of bombs and whiskers.” 

So Strachey, advocate of CP positions, which ‘Our Quarter’ calls “false and dangerous” for their non-revolutionary ideas, is prevented from coming to  “propagandize for the Popular Front and the New Deal by the New Deal’s State Department on the grounds that his political philosophy advocates the overthrow by force of… the New Deal.”


The final remark belongs to Bergson, “automatism is only reached in the official who performs his duty like a mere machine, or again in the unconsciousness that marks an administrative regulation with inexorable fatality and setting itself up for a law of nature.”

Reflections on a Non-Political Man:  As readers of this blog will know, Thomas Mann had already been the subject of three articles which aimed to clarify his political as well as his literary value by the autumn of 1938.  Apologetics begin: “It should hardly be necessary to state that we consider Thomas Mann one of the three or four great figures in modern letters….It is with some trepidation, therefore, that we make the comments that follow. But we feel it is our duty not to remain silent”.  I don’t think the writer of this squib can be William Troy, from what we know already of his praise of Mann; the voice here is clear and critical:

“During the past year [Mann] has been a traveling salesman for ‘democracy.’ We must agree with him when he says that the man of letters cannot keep aloof from politics today if he is to fulfill his function. But there is a hypocrisy in Mann’s treatment of politics.  He is constantly taking the most extreme and reckless political positions, lending his Olympian, above-the-battle prestige to political doctrines of the most dubious kind. …[In 1918, Mann wrote a book defending German Imperialism] He called the book, Reflections of a Non-Political Man.  If Thomas Mann is actually a non-political humanist, then we should like to ask how it happens that his political position at any given moment in history always happens to be that of any ‘liberal’ bourgeois, concerned, above all things, to defend his kind of capitalism.”

‘Our Quarter’ ends with another comic piece, called ‘The Henry Club,” which had been suggested by Eunice Clark  — a list of prominent men, all of whose names begin with Henry, who were upstanding members of the liberal bourgeois establishment of the USA. Some are educators, some art critics, etc: for example, “Henry Osborn Taylor, a pillar of the National Institute of Arts and Letters; Henry Dwight Sedgewick  of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Henry Sloane Coffin, of the Union Theological Seminary.” 

Armed with Partisan Review’s ‘line’ for 1938-39, the reader can then cast her eye over  to George Morris’s lithograph, Concretion, perhaps a reply to PR’s criticism of the 1938 Carnegie International Prize winner, Karl Hofer, though happily for the reader, he was one of Hitler’s ‘degenerate’ artists.   At the end of  ‘Our Quarter,’ we  find a poem by Louise Bogan, who provides a satire on the whole idea of institutional art prizes.

Several Voices Out of a Cloud

Come, drunks and drug-takers; come, perverts unnerved!  Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit; to whom and whereever deserved.

Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,                                                         Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless. And it isn’t for you.

Louise Bogan. 1938


Next week: “The School for Dictators”, Ignazio Silone