Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Marxism and Political Correctness

In 1946 Edmund Wilson published an essay entitled “Marxism and Literature.” It appeared in the collection entitled The Triple Thinkers. It is worth considering whether modern-American “Politically Correct” English professors are prone to errors similar to the ones Wilson criticizes. He writes, “. . . Marxism by itself can tell us nothing whatever about the goodness or badness of a work of art. A man may be an excellent Marxist, but if he lacks imagination and taste he will be unable to make the choice between a good and an inferior book both of which are ideologically unexceptionable.”

Wilson hastens to add that it is good to throw light on the origins and social significance of works of art. “The study of literature in its relation to society is as old as Herder – even Vico. Coleridge had flashes of insight into the connection between literary and social phenomena, as when he saw the Greek state in the Greek sentence and the individualism of the English in the short separate statements of Chaucer’s Prologue. . . But if Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky are worth listening to on the subject of books, it is not merely because they created Marxism, but also because they were capable of literary appreciation.”

Wilson writes that “Marx and Engels, unlike their followers, never attempted to furnish social-economic formulas by which the validity of works of art might be tested. They had grown up in the sunset of Goethe before the great age of German literature was over, and they had both set out in their youth to be poets; they responded to imaginative work, first of all, on its artistic merits.” Surely we should be doing the same thing today. We should first of all strive to appreciate imaginative work on its artistic merits. Secondarily we can study these imaginative works “in relation to society.”

Wilson warns, “. . . the man who tries to apply Marxist principles without real understanding of literature is liable to go horribly wrong. For one thing, it is usually true in works of the highest order that the purport is not a simple message, but a complex vision of things, which itself is not explicit but implicit; and the reader who does not grasp them artistically, but is merely looking for simple social morals, is certain to be hopelessly confused. Especially will he be confused if the author does draw an explicit moral which is the opposite of or has nothing to do with his real purport. Fredrich Engels, in the letter to Margaret Harkness . . . in warning her that the more the novelist allows his political ideas to ‘remain hidden, the better it is for the work of art,’ says that Balzac, with his reactionary opinions, is worth a thousand of Zola, with all his democratic ones. . . When Proust, in his wonderful chapter on the death of the novelist Bergotte, speaks of those moral obligations which impose themselves in spite of everything and which seem to come through to humanity from some source outside its wretched self (obligations ‘invisible only to fools . . .’), he is describing a kind of duty which he felt only in connection with the literary work which he performed in his dark and fetid room; yet he speaks for every moral, esthetic, or intellectual passion which holds the expediencies of the world in contempt.”

Wilson writes, “The Leftist critic with no literary competence is always trying to measure works of literature by tests which have no validity in that field.”

No comments: