Now the 1930s are ending…….

To Readers and Followers:

I began this project on Partisan Review in September, 2016, and have had a great time writing it and seeing how regularly readers return. Some posts still attract new readers, and some stay sullenly unread.  

Now that WWII has begun, and the 1930s are ending, and I am going to begin a sabbatical from this blog in order to start work on another project — a book project —  I will pick up the blog next year …… and of course all the posts will remain visible for you to return to if you like and for the random reader to come across through Google or other search engines.

See you in 2020,  Annie J.

 

 

 

This Quarter: The War of the Neutrals” Partisan Review Editors. Vol 6. No. 5. Fall, 1939. Part III

Part III:

“The shift of Stalin to the side of Germany was temporarily embarrassing to the liberals who had so long accepted his regime as a mainstay of the ‘democratic front’. But already they are recovering from their first pained surprise and boldly denouncing “Red Totalitarianism” and “Communist Imperialism.” Someone who first began to read the liberal weeklies a month ago would never suspect there was a time when these journals were, to say the least, on intimate terms with Stalinism. For the pact has really simplified the whole pre-war liberal position. For some time now the liberals have been made uncomfortable by the increasingly plain indications of the totalitarian nature of the Stalinist dictatorship. Neither the Czar in the last war nor Stalin in this one could be called ideal bed companions for the defenders of democracy. The liberals, of course, put up with them as long as they seemed to be necessary for the great crusade. But there is a remarkable similarity in the editorial reactions to the defection of the Soviet Union from the democratic front this time and the liberal weeklies’ editorials on the overthrow of Czarism in 1917. Now at last, is the general idea, the battle line is sharply drawn between the forces of freedom and tyranny. No longer must they labor to explain away or suppress the crimes and corruptions emanating from the Kremlin.

More clearly than ever do they see this war as essentially an ideological conflict, a clash of ideas translated into military terms. The life-principle  (democracy) used in mortal — or at any rate, soon-to-be-mortal — combat with the death-principle (fascism) between the Maginot Line and the Westwall, and the rhetoric of freedom, slightly moth-eaten by now, is enlisted on behalf of the Allied arms.

The first world war opened an era in which imperialism’s struggles for power are presented, by both sides, as Armageddons fought out to decide eternal principles.This is a refinement in the art of war peculiar to the twilight of capitalism. In the formative centuries of European capitalism, wars were publicly recognised as instruments of commercial and territorial aggrandisement. No one thought it necessary to amalgamate cultural values and military objectives. It was typical that Frederick the Great entertained Voltaire and immersed his court in the superior French culture at the same time as he was prosecuting war against France. These wars were, of course, little more than duels between professional armies, with the normal processes of life going on behind the battle-lines.

War in our time, however, is totalitarian, requiring the coordination into the military machine of the whole civil life of the nation. Further more, war today being so vastly more destructive in its effects on life and property than past wars, and also being so increasingly inconclusive and futile even in terms of power politics — what did the last war settle? — it is all the more essential to create powerful ideological sanctions for the slaughter. The basic sanction of this sort is the myth of national unity,  the patriotic love of fatherland which is supposed to rise above material and individual interests, uniting all classes in defense of a common cultural ideal. This nationalist sanction reached its full development in the last half of the last century. To it our own century has added another, one which is especially potent in liberal and intellectual circles. This is a sort of ‘international patriotism’, so to speak — the idea that the world is divided between forces of “democracy” and “autocracy” (1914- 1918), or, this time, “freedom” and “fascism.”

The old-fashioned nationalist arguments in favour of our participation in the war are not particularly dangerous in the liberal-labor circles. It is the internationalist doctrine which is really seductive. We are faced, its advocates assert with a concrete threat to the free institutions of Western civilisation, and we cannot remain indifferent to the possible victory of fascist Germany. Many of them admit the last war was a doctrinal fraud, but this war, they say, is “different,” since fascism is incomparably more threatening than Kaiserism ever was. Some will even admit that the Allied cause is tainted with imperialism, but, as Freda Kirchway of the Nation recently put it: “The qualified blessings of old-fashioned imperialism  must be preserved as a bulwark against the spread of fascist domination.” Fascism  is the brute fact, and all theories must be adapted — read ‘perverted’ — towards the great end of its defeat.

The general idea is that the Kaiser made war for the simple aims of what Miss Kirchway with nostalgia calls “old fashioned imperialism”: to get colonies, to break England’s mastery of the seas, to open up new markets; while Hitlerism has all these aims plus another of a quite different and more sinister category: to extend the fascist political system throughout the world. It is true that there are still important differences between political life in France and in Germany, but this is not because France has not yet been conquered by Germany, but because French capitalism has not yet reached the crisis stage of its German prototype.  As we pointed out in our editorial last spring, fascism is produced by the internal development of monopoly capitalism, not by any force of arms from outside. In the same way, the foreign policies of the fascist nations are determined, as are those of the”democracies,” by the needs of their internal economies, which are still based on capitalist property relations. The differences between this war and the last are mostly to be found in new diplomatic  forms and alliances which merely play over the surface of events and can be understood only as reflections of the basic imperialist antagonisms among the great powers of Europe. If  fascism turned to aggression as a matter of principle, spreading the true faith with fire and sword in Islamic fashion, one would expect to find Italy and Germany fighting together in this war. Actually, of course, the economic and geographical differences between the two nations have proved to be decisive, and Italy is not only neutral but may very well repeat her performance of the last war and join the Allies.

Last spring we noted that no one looked forward with any real enthusiasm or even confidence to the outcome of the second world war. Now that the war has come, this is still true. The embattled “democracies” have not ventured to define their war aim any more specifically than, “Hitler Must Go!” (and what must Come?) On both sides the morale of the population is low.

For this is the tragedy’s second performance. We have seen it all before! This is where we came in! And it is impossible to muster the same emotions of horror and surprise which the first showing exacted from us.  In the very novelty of the thing, in the feeling, moreover, than an event so unprecedented must belong to the order of natural calamities, the 1914 generation found some little comfort. They had discovered as Paul Valery said, that “the most beautiful and ancient things, the most formidable and best-ordered, are perishable by accident.” But even the attitude of discovery, the shocked surprise of the old-world humanist in things undreamt of in his philosophy, is denied to us today. And it is a fact that the newspapers, the cartoons, and even those shrines of moral indignation, the liberal journals have so far shown  a curious restraint. It is not the restraint of scientific detachment, however, nor does it arise from a settled sense of rectitude; it is the low-toned voice of a guilty conscience. For most people know that war is not a cosmic accident, nor the result of cruel impulses rooted in human nature. On the contrary they know that it belongs among those phenomena which , properly understood, are subject to human control.

This control, however, cannot be exercised by the ruling classes in the great imperialist democracies, for it is the economic system which serves their interests which must also resort to these periodic military bloodlettings in order to resolve economic conflicts otherwise insoluble. Within the perspective of capitalism, the best that can happen if the Allies win the war is a new Versailles, followed by the same round of political convulsions as ended up in the triumph of fascism. For it seems impossible that the war will not bring on immeasurably greater economic crises than any we have yet known, and that the mass desperation which these will provoke can be curbed by anything short of the abandonment of all democratic forms.

Many liberals, of course, are aware of the precariousness of the pro-war position. But they cling to it because they profess to see no alternative to entrusting the anti-fascist cause to the armies of imperialism. This is not surprising, since they reject the Marxist analysis of war and fascism as products of the capitalist system itself. But in their recoil from the revolutionary socialist program, they are forced back, step by step, to the most naked apologetics for imperialism. As the war has drawn nearer this country, the space between the revolutionary and the imperialist positions has steadily shrunk until it will soon not be big enough for even a New Republic editor to balance himself upon.

It is notable that the pro-war liberals can still support one cause with real enthusiasm: the revolutionary mission of the German people to overthrow Hitlerism. But even here they are involved in a hopeless contradiction. For an Anglo-French invasion is bound to arouse German patriotism, rallying all classes behind Hitler in a war of “National defense.” Thus French and British nationalism cancel out German nationalism in favour of the imperialist interests dominating both camps.  In fact, an imperialist war can be waged only so long as national unity is maintained on both sides of the firing line. The international solidarity of the workers, with the masses in each nation fighting not against their brothers across the border but against their own capitalist government is the only force that can either bring into being real democracy or make war and fascism unnecessary. This is the alternative which our liberals find too Utopian or too bloodthirsty.

NEXT WEEK: poems by Louise Bogan, Rexroth, and others….

This Quarter: The War of the Neutrals” Partisan Review Editors. Fall, Vol 6. No. 5. Fall, 1939. Part II

Part II:  Now the editorial turns more fully to the state of the US Communist Party after the Stalin-Hitler Pact has been agreed: full text here

” When the shattering news of the Pact was announced, one of the American comrades is said to have remarked triumphantly to a bourgeois friend, “I guess this will prove to you that we don’t have any pipeline to Moscow!” But even this modest gain cannot be extracted by the Party from the wreckage caused by the Pact. It is probably true that  the American Party hierarchy were not informed in any detail as to just what was going to happen — and when.  By judging from a significant change in Party propaganda in the months immediately preceding the Pact, the chiefs at least knew something was in the air. In the daily ritual anathemas of the Daily Worker, Hitler and Mussolini began to yield their places of honour to Chamberlain and Daladier. In any well-ordered bourgeois household like the Third International, the butler may not know exactly where  — or how far — the master is going, but he knows enough to pack the bags and call a cab.

For all their premonitions, however, the Party chiefs seem to have been unprepared for the abruptness with which Stalin executed his about-face. For weeks the ideological bedlam was something extraordinary even for the Communist Party. In a single interview  given out by Browder there might be counted from three to five mutually exclusive “explanations.” For a while, the Party stood firm on two major political lines in sheer conflict with each other. The stirring peals of anti-fascist unity of all men of good will continue to boom out, the Pact being presented as the bombshell that shattered the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis and the death-blow to Hitlerism, and the newborn war being supported with the same old ardor.  At the same time, a new note, reminiscent of the “Third Period” days of ultra-revolutionism, began to be heard: this is an imperialist war…the Munichmen are the tools of finance capital…the Soviet Union is well out of the whole bloody mess.

Even in the Communist Party, such a state of confusion could not safely be allowed to last very long. To the surprise of many observers, the Party bureaucracy had chosen to stick by Moscow — and Hitler — rather than break away and continue to function as the extreme left wing of the New Deal war machine. This choice is of the utmost significance in estimating the nature of the Party and its relation to the American scene. If the Party had cut loose from the Comintern in favour of the New Deal, it would have meant that its social base — both as to jobs for its bureaucrats and the real inner life of the Party –had shifted to indigenous reformation of the New Deal and American Labor Party variety. But, although such a course would have enabled the Party to continue its rapid growth of recent years and its friendly relations with the New Deal, this course was not taken. Instead, the Party has clung to Moscow, and is now denouncing the war and calling for peace at any price. It has moulted almost its entire brilliant plumage of fellow-travellers and “innocent” organisations,  has sacrificed much of its influence over the labor movement, and has not only lost its favorite position with the government in Washington but has at one stroke become  a prominent object of governmental persecution.

That in spite of all this, the Party bureaucracy found itself unable to break with Moscow shows how thoroughly Stalinized the Party apparatus has become. Indeed, it is misleading to speak of Browder and the rest having made a “choice”.

th  Earl Browder, Leader of the US Communist Party.

For all their long cohabitation with native American reformism, they remained the loyal agents of the Kremlin in American politics. It is also remarkable that the rank and file of the Party seems to have stood firm in these trying weeks. There were defections, but apparently not on a mass scale. And a recent Party rally was able to fill the twenty thousand seats of Madison Square Garden with a reasonable enthusiastic, all things considered, crowd of comrades. The disciplined, monolithic character of the Party organisation shows up most dramatically.

There is really something terrifying about this mindless, passive acceptance of directives, however irrational, from above, this abdication on the part of tens of thousands or more or less sincere radicals of all critical judgment. One feels that if the Party were ordered — by the proper authorities, of course, to march over a cliff en masse, it would obey. And this, metaphorically, its just what the American Party has been ordered to do. Even in the best of periods, the Party has a very large turnover of members, some say as much as thirty or forty per cent each year. Even if the ranks hold fast on this issue now, it seems likely that the Party will waste away rapidly as old members drop and no new people come in to replace them.  For the present Party line, acceptable though it may be to disciplined members, has practically no attraction for those outside the Party.

The present C.P. line on war is a weird mixture of pseudo-isolationism and pseudo-revolutionism. We say ‘pseudo’ because it all boils down to a tactic directed toward no more elevated end than the protection of the mutual interests of Moscow and Berlin. The Party’s isolationism can be dismissed in a few words. It has nothing in common with the indigenous midwestern variety, which is naive and provincial but is at least  honestly concentrated on keeping this country out of a European war. The Party, too, now advises the American masses to keep out of the imperialist blood-bath, which in itself is excellent advice. But what the Party, as Moscow’s agent in this country, is really interested in is not peace or isolationism but the victory of Hitler-Stalin over the Allies, just as last winter, when it was shrieking for a democratic holy war against Hitler, it was really concerned not  with any such high-flown business at all but quite simply with the implementation of the Kremlin’s ultimately successful attempt to force Hitler into an alliance. C.P. ‘isolationism’ has nothing to do with the interests of the American masses, and will be chucked overboard tomorrow when and if the Kremlin’s foreign policy takes a new turn.

The ‘revolutionary’ line on the way is smokescreen to obscure two awkward realities: (1) the Moscow-Berlin alliance; and (2) the Red Army’s division of Poland with the Reichswehr, and the more recent imperialist diplomatic drive against the Baltic States. The general idea is that the Soviet Union is a socialist state and that, in the interests of the world revolution, anything goes.

The comrades explain away the alliance with Hitler as a smart trick: Stalin doesn’t ‘really’ trust Hitler and is merely ‘using’ him for the time being, to betray him later on. Thus the Soviet Union is not committed to the fascist side. But this is nothing more than normal, everyday imperialist power politics. No one ‘really’ trusts any one else, and everyone ‘uses’ their allies as much as he can, and betrays them whenever it is in his interest to do so. Stalin made a pact with Hitler, and if the Allies seem to be winning later on, Stalin will probably betray Hitler and return to the democratic camp.  Mussolini also made a pact with Hitler and he, too, if the Allies seem to be winning, may be counted on to turn traitor to the Axis as being as ardent a democrat as — Daladier. In that case, according to the Party line, Il Duce will have also struck a mighty blow for world socialism.

As for the Red Army’s recent exploits, these are also hailed as mighty strokes for socialism. Nothing is more ludicrous than the attempts of the Stalinists to picture these ‘provincial conquests’ in Trotsky’s phrase, as though they represent the spreading of the October revolution to the rest of the world. Even as imperialist burglaries, they are not very impressive. The Polish ‘campaign’ of the Red Army, in which the chief excitement was provided by the tanks getting stuck in the mud or running out of gas, was the sort of hollow victory over a prostrate and inferior foe that the Fascist legions won Ethiopia. And like the Ethiopian campaign, its chief utility was for internal consumption to soothe the grumbling masses and to inflate a little the collapsed morale of the Red Army.

As for world revolution, it is noticeable that the Third International, in its current anti-war phase, has not dared raise anywhere the classic Leninist slogan, the only possible basis for a revolutionary opposition to war: Turn the imperialist war into civil war! The Kremlin is no more anxious for world revolution than is Downing Street or the White House.

But Trotsky propounds the final and unanswerable question: “If the Kremlin wants to foment world revolution, how could it sacrifice its influence over the international working class for the sake of occupying some border territories?” “Eleven million more people enjoy socialism!” exults the New Masses.  But what if the hundreds of millions of French and English and Indian and Chinese and American and German and Italian and other workers throughout the world whose faith in socialism has received this ultimate betrayal by the Kremlin gang and its agents throughout the world? The exposure of Stalinism as the implacable enemy of the international working class had to come sooner or later, and it will be, in the long run a healthy and progressive development.  But the immediate effects are shattering and demoralising. The labor and socialist movement the world over has hardly been a century in such a state of collapse as today. For this tragic situation the Kremlin and its dupes and agents — the Browders and Pollitts and Thorezes, the Lamonts and Stracheys and Cowleys and Lerners and Hickses and Shumanns and Brouns — must bear full responsibility. Some of these have already broken with Moscow, though for the most part in a hypocritical and disingenuous way, and more will do so in the future, Those who keep silent or who continue to support the policies of the Third International must from now on be called bluntly what they are: agents of the Kremlin, and for the present, at least, of Hitler.

Next week: Part III

 

 

“This Quarter: The War of the Neutrals” Partisan Review Editors. Fall, Vol 6. No. 5. Fall, 1939.

PART I of “This Quarter.”

The quarterly report from the editors of Partisan Review  carries on from the sense of not-yet-war doldrums of the spring and summer of 1939. Remember that the USA is on the other side of the ocean, and PR’s Editorial pages are rather more influenced by the politics of Fascism and Stalinism than by domestic policies.

The piece opens with the oxymoron of a war between  neutrals — engaged but not quite: “The War abroad the moment of writing, is like a movie that has abruptly been stuck  in immobility by the jamming of the projection apparatus. PR speaks from the. grounds of cultural politics, and the image of movie stasis — the freeze-frame — features not a vivid moment of carnage, but of something close to nothing.

“The film started off briskly and portentously enough, with the ratification of the Stalin-Hitler Pact by the Soviet Congress, and the first German guns roaring into Poland a few hours later; the ultimatums of England and France to Hitler, followed by formal declarations of war; the swift, brutal blitzkrieg in Poland; the massing of French troops in the Maginot Line; the disappearance of the British High Fleet into the North Sea on war duty; the torpedoing of the Athenia; the nightly blackouts in Paris and London. It seemed that the final cataclysm, long expected, was at last here. But once the Reichswehr and the Red Army had divided Poland amicably between them, the film jammed.”

blitzkreig poland Blitzkrieg into Poland

With the forces organised and lined up for action, without much happening, the real battle appears to be that of the Axis for the support of the Neutral Nations. [the War neutrals in Europe were Andorra, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland (with Liechtenstein), and the Vatican].  Accordingly, the “This Quarter” analysis can only focus on the two great states: the USSR and the USA.  It is clear that the USA will enter the war if/when the Allies needs its help. A win by Germany will be a disaster for US capitalism.  But it is also the case that the USA and the Allies are competitors for world power and for markets. And here comes the sting for the Allies:

“The more the Allies are exhausted by the war, the better for the interests of American capitalism. The aim of our diplomacy, therefore is to wait until the last possible moment, but not to delay so long  that the Allies are defeated before American aid can reach them”. And the punchline runs like this:

“NO, the United States is an imperialist nation, the mightiest of them all, it also has a huge economic stake in the struggle, and it will intervene for one purpose only: to protect its own imperialist interests.”

stalin & pipe Stalin’s “Benevolent Pipe”

The Second ‘Neutral’ is the USSR… “A few weeks ago, the Comintern was agitating for a world crusade against Hitler… Stalin has been transformed from an international philanthropist, whose pipe was an index of his philosophical benevolence, into a Metternichean power politician, his pipe-puffing now signifying preternatural guile.”

stalin's preternatural guile pipe. Stalin’s Preternatural Guile Pipe.

While some would say that Stalin’s turn to Fascist Imperialism was an ‘inevitable’ transmutation of Leninism, the authors of this Editorial think nothing of the kind.

“NO, on the contrary, we believe that the Soviet government has been obliged to go in for power politics because it long ago abandoned the Leninist conception that the defense of the Soviet Union was inseparably bound to the liberation of the masses in other countries.  The degeneration of the 1917 Revolution is not to be understood in terms of the free, unhampered working out of Bolshevik theory to ‘its logical conclusion.’ The principal factors in the rise of Stalinism, seem to us to have been the impact of such largely uncontrollable phenomena as the devastation and demoralisation caused by the protracted armed intervention of the Allies, the economic and cultural backwardness of Russia, and the failure of the revolution to establish itself in any other country.”

“The fear of the Soviet masses and the international proletariat is the key to Stalin’s foreign policy. Stalin, like Chamberlain, has wanted above to all, to avoid war at any cost. And as is now being demonstrated, it was possible to make common cause with Hitler without provoking any military intervention from the Allies.”

Germany and France realised that war was going to happen; and Hitler had to be destroyed. and so on Augst 31, 1939 The Soviet Congress unanimously ratifies the Ribbentrop- Molotov pact.

Next week: Part II of “This Quarter.”

 

 

Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No.3, Fall 1939: Clark Mills, “Pastoral for Poland”.

The German invasion of Poland on September 1,1939  was the opening of the Second World War. The articles in the Autumn issue of PR are marked throughout by the sense of its inevitability permeating Europe and the world at large that summer. I will return next week with the “This Quarter” report from the Editors of the journal, but am starting with the first poem of the issue, a “Pastoral for Poland” by Clark Mills.

PASTORAL FOR POLAND
Now have the cries of bombed and drowned
a gentle, elegiac sound;
rumour of grief and news of pain
drench the drunk mind like autumn rain.
And now the innocent and wise
crouch from the menace of blue skies
till they lie broken, or in flight
towards the ignorant shield of night.
The burning forest of the nations
wheels under the constellations;
the iron birds roar the bomb-routes; deep
in the explosions children sleep.
Together in the cold of day
the placid, great-limbed beasts of prey,
strong at the twilight hour, and feeding,
rend the sweet flash before them bleeding,
and formless forms in slippers and cowl
watch with the still, round eyes of the owl,
soar from the tree of faith to bless
the perfect act of ruthlessness,
and crickets ring the leafing fire
chirping with terror and desire,
and the rest, under the shadowed hill,
rustle and scurry and are still.
–In the exhausted hour of peace
whom shall we honour among these?
The martyrs bleeding by the wall,
the humble, who cry out and fall,
and these are all, and these are all..

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

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. Clark Mills was pointed out to Williams as that student who writes “crazy modern verse nobody understands but God and himself!” Tom, 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.

This poem is littered with Audenesque phrases and it sounds Blakean as well. There is nothing particularly innovative about it, but it figures as a type for an anti-war poem written by a 26-year-old poet who is a Leftist without being a Stalinist, and so capable of judging the ‘placid beasts of prey’ who devour the ‘martyrs’ and the ‘humble’ — beasts of prey who include fascists and liberals alike.

 

next week “This Quarter” Editors, Partisan Review

 

 

The Situation in American Writing, Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.4, Summer,1939, No. 3 Harold Rosenberg

Today I am posting one more of the writers who answered the 7 questions set by the editors of Partisan Review: these are Harold Rosenberg’s responses, the art critic and art historian who for many years engaged in a critical debate with Clement Greenberg in the pages of Partisan Review, and later in The New Yorker. Rosenberg was the art critic for The New Yorker from 1967 until his death in 1978. Rosenberg is famous for coining the term, ‘Action Painting” to describe the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic.

  1.  Are you conscious, in your own writing, of the existence of a ‘usable past’? Is this mostly American? What figures would you designate as elements in it? Would you say, for example, that Henry James’s work is more relevant to the present and future of American writing than Walt Whitman’s?
  2. Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
  3. Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? Would you agree that the corruption of the literary supplements by advertising — in the case of the newspapers — and political pressures — in the case of the liberal weeklies — has made has made serious literary criticism an isolated cult?
  4. Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want     to,  and without the aid of such crutches as teaching and editorial work? Do you think   there is any place in the present economic system for literature  as a profession?

5.   DO you feel, in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organisation, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?

6.   How would you describe the political tendency of  American writing as a whole since 1930?  How do you feel about it yourself? Are you sympathetic to the current tendency toward what may be called “literary nationalism” — a renewed emphasis, largely uncritical, on the specifically “American” elements in our culture?

7. Have you considered the question of your attitude towards the possible entry of the United States into the next world war? What do you think the responsibilities in general are when and if war comes?.

Harold Rosenberg’s Replies:
  1. What is a ‘usable past’? The phrase seems to me most intelligible if it is taken to mean a literary tendency to which a writer deliberately attaches his own work in order to modify it, Thus Thomas Mann consciously uses the romantic movement of the 19th century, and Eliot French symbolism and English metaphysical poetry. For an original artist this is a very peculiar orientation, not far removed from that of the academicians.  The writer stands outside his work and builds it up from carefully selected materials. His posture implies a readiness to regard himself as a representative figure, a literary landmark. It implies also that the professional literary practice  has been raised to the level of a philosophy — a philosophy of the practical value of Art. One sets out to use (and change) the art of literature in the interests of its future; and through this one hopes to change the world. Merely to imitate, even to imitate persistently certain selected models is not to ‘use’ the past in this sense. Imitation is more naive than such using, has a closer resemblance to life itself. Long before we have culture or even conscious aims, we imitate.  And the writer who does not seek primarily to affect the history of literature tends to live in his work rather than use it. Baudelaire establishes himself inside of Poe as a base of operations; he apes him but does not use him.Through Poe he achieves a heightened sense of himself, whereas the ‘users’ are always talking of the ‘self-abnegation of the Artist.’  I still find much human appeal in the writer who is conscious by means of the past though not of the past as a means.  Another distinction is that imitation is always of individuals, while to elect a section of the past as usable indicates an intent to capture and exploit, for the sake of special interests, a specific historical area. In short, the whole idea of “usable past” is shot through with the politics of art. The American cultural past consists of the total results of a combined official using, and inspired individual aping of the European past. Beginning with Independence, American writers and artists have behaved in the native tradition by exchanging in rotation the following masters: British and French classicism, Rhenish romanticism, the Great of All Ages (Transcendentalism), Italian classicism (mainly in sculpture) French realism (social and psychological), French symbolic, etcetera. In America, though not in Europe, to be an American has always meant to be a properly dated European. Today, for instance, some people believe it means to be a Russian or German patriot. Outside this American culture — always under two or more flags — have lived the millions of native and immigrant americans who missed the chance to study with Thorwaldsen or at the Ecole des Beaux Arts or to enjoy the regulation Wanderjahe at Gottingen and Montmartre. These frontiersmen, tillers of soil, and builders of towns have been for the main part neither Americans or non-Americans in the  cultural sense — because their culture has been a homemade, transitional folk customs, without national scope, or they have had no culture at all, except for racial or sectarian remnants (Pennsylvania Germans, Huguenots, Mexicans, Scandinavian, Negro, Mormon, Quaker). These lower case Americans have been and remain ‘aliens.’ Their culture lies in the future not in the past.

Because the cultured Americans have been, almost exclusively, members of the upper class, while the americans are workers and farmers, storekeepers and country doctors, many writers today believe that the ‘soil’ and the folk is more Revolutionary,  as well as more American, than the library, the museum, and the idea. This is a very serious mistake. The most brutal and philistine american executive-type is also opposed instinctively to European art and literature, and likes to stage himself as a plain guy, a member of the cultural rank and file. And in literature itself the ‘people’s writers, from Mark Twain to Sinclair Lewis, merely start with the soil; they climb in the direction of the Academy, of which, as the antithesis of the real but uncultured folk, is also neither American nor European but merely an upper class sublimation of unreality.

On the other hand, writers like Poe, Whitman, or James, who take off from the contrast and tension between Europe and America, remains equally relevant, whether they move East, West, or up and down. America can be known only through the perspective of international culture. Conversely, it can only understand world ideas only if it applies them to itself.

Every writer today who is worth anything shows in some way the influence of the overturn that took place in American prose and poetry via Gertrude Stein and others. I wish to characterise this movement as essentially aristocratic (European-minded American) aping of american proletarian speech. (Examples:Stein, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Moore, Cummings). This writing, which at its best goes much farther in the direction of both aural accuracy and literary associations than Whitman’s private lingo, represents a synthesis, a new era in American consciousness and consciousness of the world. Our living language is brought into focus with the living language of the past: it need not fear that looking back to the masterpieces of Europe and antiquity will turn it into a pillar of salt. On the other hand, American letters need strive no longer to shape every experience into a plaster of Paris model of a European original. Through bringing its major social element into play, American culture has begun to develop an identity of its own.

Already, however, in novels, Hollywood, Broadway, this experimental ‘cultural-proletarian’ language is being academicised, cleaned up, made “natural” (example: Abe Lincoln in Illinois),  made 100% American, i.e. zero.

2. A writer remains alive so long as he postulates the existence of a section of the population whose cultural dynamism is at least equal to his own, and whose influence is or will become dominant. Into this lively soluble mass he drops his own work, with the hope that it will cause a coagulation of taste and thought. . .The number of people who understand the International -American rhetoric is definitely growing, This, as noted above, also increases the rewards for, and consequently the chances of vulgarisation, which has started to drain the meaning out of the movement.

3. The newspapers and liberal weeklies have never been serious about literature; seriousness has been confined to the reviews and ‘little magazines’.  It is easy to see why: these publications, orienting themselves on ‘American interests,’ have assumed a smug proprietorial defense of ‘our literature’; while all serious efforts in American letters have been directed more or less humbly towards the European-American equation. More directly, however, liberalism assumes that all questions can be solved through ‘moderation’ — even lies and vulgarity must be treated moderately; and there is here a definite hatred and fear of ideas and acts carried through to their conclusion.  Whereas literature tends, especially in modern times, towards exaggeration and finality (its moderation, too, is exaggerated) , and this has been congenitally distasteful to the liberals. In addition, there is outright individual dishonesty and log-rolling constantly at work in that ‘social-minded’ atmosphere.  When the liberal weeklies are moderately hospitable to experimental critics like Burke or Schapiro or to poets like WIliams or Fearing, at the same time surrounding their contributions with those of all sorts of publishers’s bootlickers and editors’ boys, they show even less concern for values that the reactionary supplements who attack a thing merely because it is new. Thus, whatever is good in The Nation or The New Republic, and there have been many good pieces and excellent writers presented there, has been forced to cling with its teeth to a slippery intellectual surface.

4. Sure there’s a place for literature as a profession. In fact, it’s one of the few professions that has a future — along with military aviation, demagogy, patriotic preaching, spying, etc. The worse society gets the more professional it becomes, and the greater the demand for this type of intimate service.

5. See my review elsewhere in this issue of  Democracy and Socialism. Arthur Rosenberg, Knopf.

6.See above.

7. In time of war the writer has at least the obligation not to find the ‘good side’ of it.

 

Next Week: Desmond Hawkins, London Letter

 

The Situation in American Writing, Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.4, Summer,1939, 2. John Dos Passos.

2. John Dos Passos

The 7 set of questions listed below were those that the Editors of  Philip Rahv’s piece on “This Quarter” sent out  to various US writers about the state of writing in the nation.  There were 7 questions:

  1. Are you conscious, in your own writing, of the existence of a ‘usable past’? Is this mostly American? What figures would you designate as elements in it? Would you say, for example, that Henry James’s work is more relevant to the present and future of American writing than Walt Whitman’s?
  2. Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
  3. Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? Would you agree that the corruption of the literary supplements by advertising — in the case of the newspapers — and political pressures — in the case of the liberal weeklies — has made has made serous literary criticism an isolated cult?

4.  Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want     to,  and without the aid of such crutches as teaching and editorial work? Do you think   there is any place in the present economic system for literature  as a profession?

5.   DO you feel, in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organisation, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?

6.   How would you describe the political tendency of  American writing as a whole since 1930?  How do you feel about it yourself? Are you sympathetic to the current tendency toward what may be called “literary nationalism” — a renewed emphasis, largely uncritical, on the specifically “American” elements in our culture?

7. Have you considered the question of your attitude towards the possible entry of the United States into the next world war? What do you think the responsibilities in general are when and if war comes?

Last week I posted Gertrude Stein’s rather barbed answers. Here are the answers given by John Dos Passos:

Dos Passos John Dos Passos

  1. In relation to style and methods of writing, I hardly think of the past in chronological order. Once on the library shelf Juvenal and Dreiser are equally “usable.” The best immediate ancestor (in Auden’s sense)for today’s American writing is I think a  dark star somewhere in the constellation containing Mark Twain, Melville, Thoreau and Whitman.
  2. The audience is probably the people who read books other than best sellers. I doubt if it has expanded much in the last ten years, though in the preceding  five years it certainly expanded. It may very well be shrinking now.
  3. The critics for the daily press, and all the newspaper writers live in a very special world. I think they are more influenced by the ebb and flow of headlined fashions, and by the varying standards in social prestige of the world than by any direct advertising pressure. Advertising probably determines the space given a book, and in the long run, I think it will be found that various publishers’ lists get respectful attention in direct relation to the financial positions of the concerns. After all, what do you want for three cents? Current newspaper criticisms are interesting to the social historians just as fashion notes are interesting. I doubt very much if they will take their place in the “usable” past. There’s not enough, but there is some first rate literary criticism around that, naturally, is very useful to a writer.
  4. I’ve managed to do it so far but its nip and tuck.
  5. isn’t an individual just a variant in a group? The equipment belongs to the society you were brought up by. The individuality lies I how you use it. My sympathies, for some reason, lie with the private in the front line again the brass hat; with the hod carrier against the straw boss, or the walking delegate for that matter; with the laboratory worker against the stuffed shirt in a mortarboard.; with the criminal against the cop. When I try to use my head it’s somewhat different. People are you and me. As for allegiance; what I consider the good side of what’s been going on among people on this continent since 1620 or thereabouts, has mine. And isn’t there one of history’s dusty attics called the Republic of Letters.
  6. On the whole I’m all for the trend toward American self-consciousness in current writing. Of course any god thing gets run into the ground. I think there is enough real democracy in the very mixed American tradition to enable us, with courage and luck, to weather the social transformations that are now going on without losing all our liberties or the humane outlook that is the medium in which civilisations grow. The reaction to home-bred ways of thinking is a healthy defence against the total bankruptcy of Europe. As I have come to believe firmly that in politics the means tend to turn out to be more important than the end, I think that the more our latent pragmatism and our cynicism regard to ideas is stimulated the safer we will be.
  7. My attitude towards a war would entirely depend on what I thought its internal results would be, though its hard to conceive of a war that would have good results anywhere. But how would I know when it began? We live in a very odd period in human history and it’s very difficult to make broad generalizations about events or to label them beforehand.  Practically, I’d probably try to get back my old job driving an ambulance.

Next Week: Another Writer Looks at the Situation of American Writing.

 

The Situation in American Writing, Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.4, Summer,1939, Gertrude Stein

The theme of the Summer issue of PR, 1939 was somewhat insular. As Europe became the ground for WWII, American isolationism had its chance to appear again. Philip Rahv’s piece on “This Quarter” was matched by the results of a questionnaire posted to various US writers about the state of writing in the nation.  There were 7 questions:

  1. Are you conscious, in your own writing, of the existence of a ‘usable past’? Is this mostly American? What figures would you designate as elements in it? Would you say, for example, that Henry James’s work is more relevant to the present and future of American writing than Walt Whitman’s?
  2. Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
  3. Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? Would you agree that the corruption of the literary supplements be advertising — in the case of the newspapers — and political pressures — in the case of the liberal weeklies — has made has made serous literary criticism an isolated cult?
  4. Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want to, and without the aid of such crutches as teaching and editorial work? Do you think there is any place in the present economic system for literature  as a profession? 
  5. DO you feel, in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organisation, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?
  6. How would you describe the political tendency of  American writing as a whole since 1930?  How do you feel about it yourself? Are you sympathetic to the current tendency toward what we may be called “literary nationalism” — a renewed emphasis, largely uncritical, on the specifically “American” elements in our culture?
  7. Have you considered the question of your attitude towards the possible entry of the United States into the next world war? What do you think the responsibilities in general are when and if war comes?  

Many writers replied and I will include the most interesting in the next weeks of Reading Partisan Review. But I thought it might be most amusing to start out with Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde and bleakly comic and caustic replies:

Unknown-5   1. Usable for what, cannot worry about the future of American Writing.  The present is enough, and any American is American.

2. An audience is pleasant if you have it, it is flattering and flattering is agreeable always, but if you have an audience the being an audience is their business, they are the audience, you are the writer, let each attend to their own business.

3. After all, if it is written and presumably what you write is written before it is criticised then criticism is bound to come too late always. To the rest of the question it is the same.

4. I suppose if I had to make a living I should have, I do not know, how can you tell?

5. I am not interested.

6. Writers only think they are interested in politics, they are not really, it gives them a chance to talk and writers like to talk but really no real writer is really interested in politics.

7. It does not seem possible for any of you to realise that  most probably there will not be another general European war, the more Americans thinks there is going to be one, the more suspicious the continent gets and the less likely they are to fight.  Anyway, they are not at all likely to do so but if they were to then the writers would have to fight too like anybody else some will like it and some will not.

31hJTFP06rL._AC_US420_QL65_.jpgReaders might want to read this book by Janet Malcolm, which addresses the reality of the European War to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

 

 

 

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

Part II:
Rahv-Mugshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Week: Writers on Their Situation.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

philip Rahv-16 Philip Rahv

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

th.arnold Zweig Anton Zweig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

come back next week to read  part II.