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The New International, September 1947


Calder Willingham


Politics and the Artist


From The New International, Vol.&mnsp;XIII No. 7, September 1947, pp. 221–223.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To the Editors:

A considerable amount of space has already been given the writings of Arthur Koestler in the pages of the New International. Nevertheless, the relatively simple issues involved have been so obfuscated by Irving Howe that a few final summary remarks can be seen as of some point. The charge implicitly made by Howe of Stalinist literary assault is itself dangerous and serious. If Howe sincerely feels that Loumos, Gates and I stand guilty of heel-clicking Marxism, and if there are others who feel that way, then in fairness to all concerned another attempt should be made at clarification; clarification not merely of Koestler’s writing, but of a few fundamentals on the subject of politics and literature, fundamentals already described far more fully and expertly than can be done here. We need not let this stop us, however. If brevity and simplicity are a limitation, then perhaps Irving Howe can profit from it, as apparently he has not profited from the original Marxist writings on the subject.

Tendencies within a culture are first and last the prisoners of that culture. When culture is seen as entirely heterogenous, wild, scattered or accidental, then it is impossible to admit even the existence of tendencies, much less identify and characterize them. To whatever extent human social behavior can be understood, it must be understood by assuming and attempting to demonstrate cultural homogeneities. When this is done superficially one arrives merely at insipid, flat amalgams which are polemical in essence, based often on the logic of contraries. Short of full analysis the pertinence of observations must be exposed itself to rhetorical charges. It is suggested thoughtful readers will always test the pertinence of observations, however. With the limits of space in mind one asks that the reader develop the lines here that will be briefly suggested.


An editor of a well-known literary magazine was recently asked a naive question. A woman of some experience in the radical movement asked him why the magazine was not printed by union labor. He made this sophisticated reply: “You talk like this was the year 1937 – to hell with that stuff.” The same man was asked on another occasion to speak on some literary subject before a small leftist group. He inquired: “How much do they pay?”

Needless to remark, this gentleman ten years ago would have fainted from humiliation, real or affected, to witness his present-day cynicism. But now he can make the penetrating statement that ten years have passed since ten years ago. But what does he mean? The answer is simple. On the floor of Davison-Paxon’s department store in Atlanta a southern belle is reputed once to have indignantly screamed: “Ah was promised mah fuh coat this evenin’ and Ah’m the kind of person that can’t stand disappointment!” The gentleman’s revolution was promised him (sic) – and he’s the kind of person that can’t stand disappointment. But he is more disappointed than the lady, because a revolution is more important than a fur coat, there being little comparison between them. On a cool day without a fur coat you can wear a wool coat, or stay in the apartment. But there are no substitutes for a high-grade revolution. This gentleman, and others like him, long ago decided they’d been stood up by history for the last time. They’re through with her; she seemed attractive, but has proven to be a bitch. No respectable girl would turn down clean, handsome Marxists who love her for herself, then go to bed with triflers like Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, who only want her body. The logic of the clean, handsome Marxists of the 1930s demands that they renounce such a promiscuous slut, and search for a good virgin; however, since there is no such thing, they are having trouble.

The Case of Partisan Review

The heart’s blood of a tendency can be seen in the new persons it wins. The tendency of the magazine, Partisan Review, a tendency of anti-historical literary obfuscation, is significant today as a dividend of whining, demoralized loss. This tendency, and the magazine with it, will be gone tomorrow. Partisan Review, particularly in the course of the past five years, has attracted certain congealed artists and a group of younger persons who succeed in carrying the tendency to the limit of a manic extreme. The review has been germinal of sophomore erudition and supralush phrase-making; those qualities, as if by natural law, are being exaggerated, and the exaggeration is itself being exaggerated, like the mannerisms of a coquette turning to fat and wrinkles. Present reviews and essays read like burlesques of those a few years back; and the readership ominously changes, sifts. The living reader watches the instrument of language become a device used for the purpose of confounding with snobbish awe the writer himself as well as his audience. The labored syntax, forced obscurity, obstreperous complexity – here are today’s Lilliputians jumping for royalty. They strain all their cleverness to bewilder themselves. And in the final accounting, they bewilder Henry C. Luce. The pathetic joke is that when Luce speaks of “intellectual gibberish” he doesn’t really mean it – he’s talking down to the nervous brokers and Yale freshmen who read his paper. Luce is smart; he knows that the Partisan Review stuff is really brilliant.

The basic deception is of course concerned with the question of history. All the tedious verbalizing, so meaningless in itself, has the purpose of concealing the possibility of there existing a historical methodology in social or literary criticism. At times this verbalizing, which is not limited to Partisan Review writers, uses the cliches of an historical methodology such as Marxism in an attempt to ignore history itself.

Irving Howe, in his comments concerning Koestler, speaks heavily of the Real Marxism and the Real History. Unfortunately, his approach to Koestler is totally antihistorical. This is revealed in Howe’s remarks concerning the freedom of choice of the novelist; his juxtaposition of such fictional liberties upon the work of a man whose approaches to fiction are wholly outside the framework of art upon which the freedom of choice of the novelist was originally constructed. This is a typical example of the formularizing of truth, the freezing of literary tenets of criticism that Howe himself so vigorously pretends to oppose. It must be suggested that Howe has succumbed in general to both the techniques and the conclusions of the tendency of which Partisan Review is a segment. The outright quackery of Howe’s reply to Gates, which we cannot at this time consider in its gross details, offers additional evidence. One paragraph, however:

Irving Howe writes: “Literature is above all the expression of one human faculty: the imagination. A novel is a created structure of the imagination; ...” (italics in original – C.W.) But what, Irving Howe, have you told us? What is a structure? And what is a created structure? And what is the imagination? Assuming a book can be a structure, could it possibly be an uncreated structure? An uncreated structure would not exist – correct? Have we here made critical progress? Or have we made nothing but a disguise of emptiness?

Politics and the Artist

The increasing agitation of political tensions has forced new problems for artists; more and more the artist feels himself delimited in what he should say, what he can say that will be real to himself and his audience. This delimitation has acted to sharpen or blunt absolutely the artist’s conception of social force. It remains a truism to state that writing, like criticism, has no choice but to be political, political from the standpoint of what can be described as emotional encompassment. But this truism is now especially shied from by a few artists or critics of the left. Why?

There are two reasons; one real, one pretended. It is pretended that the stupidity and viciousness of the Stalinists has corrupted forever the truth that writing must be seen as political! But the statement is shied from on account of the fact, really, that it is not believed. In other words, the Marxists, among others, were wrong; man isn’t actually a social (or political) animal, but an animal each unto himself. When at this point the distracting fogs are removed, it is simple: history has been dismissed. Aside from tortured language, there is here only one major distracting element: the awful example of the Stalinists. A smart chap can generate a little distracting fog by suggesting an amalgam. But the hopelessness of such a trick need not be played upon; emptiness is always the reward of those who argue by contraries. If the Stalinists say a certain thing, implement it rigidly, idiotically, and for the purposes of human destruction, then it does not follow contrarily that the person who does not say that thing will avoid rigidity, idiocy, and human destruction. Nor would such consequences follow the person who would say that certain thing that the Stalinists happened to seize upon to pervert.

Indeed, the statement that literature has to be political is only a diving board; it is only a means to get into the pool and doesn’t determine whether you sink or swim. It is necessary to indicate in what manner literature must be political, what is meant or included in the term. Here in passing it might be advisable to be obvious and mention that if literature is blind politically, there will be no Stalinist question of liquidating the offender; rather, such literature will be outside, it will practically always lack moral impetus and won’t score.

The purpose of the critic is to reveal not merely the manner in which the artist works, but the political or social essence of that upon which he works, the latter largely precluding and conditioning the former anyhow. In this statement there exists no suggestion that the critic should be stupid and insensitive; indeed, we will explicitly add that the critic should not be stupid and insensitive.

The issues are very clear in the case of Arthur Koestler. There is no question of particular subtlety. Koestler’s work is based upon malformations of the entry of politics into art. In this sense his writing is “political” literature – with quotes. As I said recently in these pages, Koestler embraces the aesthetic of the worst proletarian art, which is a vulgarization, not a solution, of the problem of the artist. This is shown above all in Koestler’s manipulation of character. Such a patent derivative of proletarian art simply cannot be judged as one would judge a novel of the year 1875, at which time the artist was simply not aware, nor was his audience aware, of certain modern “fictional” tricks.

The problems existed then, but they were not so acute as they are now. The screen of editorializing through which Koestler’s writing is filtered differs tremendously from the agitation in the work of such a man as Leo Tolstoy. It can be said definitely that the pressures upon Tolstoy and the general circumstances of Tolstoy’s time were never such as to cause him to play the novel cheap; to lapse into simplistic propaganda. There was a majesty in the convictions of Tolstoy that bears no relation to the dry, lifeless, over-simple faiths and fears of Arthur Koestler and the tradition from which Koestler grew. Koestler is indeed called by admirers such as Howe “a novelist-journalist.” Could anything be clearer than that Koestler’s work cannot be criticized apart from its political meanings? It is reactionary (and impossible), both from the viewpoint of literature and politics, to read Koestler for purely aesthetic heightening of consciousness, et cetera. In no novelist’s writings can such an aerial thrill be obtained – and on the face of it a “novelist-journalist” puts a terrible strain upon those who distill art as if it were alcohol. This strain is visible in Irving Howe’s wrangling “defense” of Koestler.

Calder Willingham

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