From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature
(with a special emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda)
(1958) “There is the intricate, yet ultimately persuasive, distinction which Marxist theory draws between ‘realism’ and ‘naturalism.’ It goes back to Hegel’s reflections on the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hegel found that in the Homeric epics the depiction of physical objects, however detailed and stylized, did not intrude upon the rhythm and vitality of the poem. Descriptive writing in modern literature, on the other hand, struck him as contingent and lifeless…. Compared to Homeric or even to medieval times, modern man inhabits the physical world like a rapacious stranger. These ideas greatly influenced Marx and Engels. It contributed to their own theory of the ‘alienation’ of the individual under capitalist modes of production. In the course of their debate with Lassalle and of their study of Balzac, Marx and Engels came to believe that this problem of estrangement was directly germane to the problem of realism in art. The poets of antiquity and the ‘classical realists’ (Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac) had achieved an organic relationship between objective reality and the life of the imagination. The ‘naturalist,’ on the other hand, looks on the world as on a warehouse of whose contents he must make a feverish inventory. ‘A sense of reality,’ says a contemporary Marxist critic, ‘is created not by a reproduction of all the features of an object but by a depiction of those features that form the essence…while in naturalistic art—because of a striving to achieve an elusive fullness—the image, also incomplete, places both the essential and the secondary, the unimportant, on the same plane.’ This distinction is far reaching. It bears on the decline of French realism after Balzac and Stendhal, and tells us something of Zola’s obsessive attempt to make of the novel an index of the world. By virtue of it, we may discriminate between the ‘realism’ of Chekhov and the ‘naturalism’ of, say, Maupassant. Through it, also, we may ascertain that Madame Bovary, for all its virtues, is a slighter thing than Anna Karenina. In naturalism there is accumulation; in realism what Henry James called the ‘deep-breathing economy’ of organic form…” (321-322).
“At the origins of the Marxist theory of literature there are three celebrated and canonic texts. Two of them are citations from Engels’ letters [to Kautsky and Harkness]; the third is contained in a short essay by Lenin [“Party Organization and Party Literature”]…. Engels is not objecting to a litérature engagée as such but rather to the mixture ‘of mere empiricism and empty subjectivity’ in the bourgeois novel of the period. Obviously dissatisfied with this treatment of the problem, Lukács reverted to it in 1945, in his ‘Introduction to the Writings on Aesthetics of Marx and Engels.’ Here he contends that Engels was distinguishing between two forms of litérature à thèse (it is significant that the English language and its critical vocabulary have developed no precisely equivalent expression). All great literature, in Lukács’ reading, has a ‘fundamental bias.’ A writer can only achieve a mature and responsible portrayal of life if he is committed to progress and opposed to reaction, if he ‘loves the good and rejects the bad.’ When a critic of Lukacs’ subtlety and rigor descends to such banalities—banalities which directly challenge his own works on Goethe, Balzac, and Tolstoy—we know that something is amiss. The attempt to reconcile the image of literature implicit in Lenin’s essay with that put forward by Engels is a rather desperate response to the pressures of orthodoxy and to the Stalinist demand for total internal coherence in Marxist doctrine. Even the most delicate exegesis cannot conceal the plain fact that Engels and Lenin were saying different things, that they were pointing toward contrasting ideals” (305-307).
“Marxist-Leninism and the political régimes enacted in its name take literature seriously, indeed desperately so. At the very height of the Soviet revolution’s battle for physical survival, Trotsky found occasion to assert that ‘the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch.’ Stalin himself deemed it essential to add to his voluminous strategic and economic pronouncements a treatise on philology and the problems of language in literature. In a Communist society the poet is regarded as a figure central to the health of the body politic. Such regard is cruelly manifest in the very urgency with which the heretical artist is silenced or hounded to destruction. To shoot a man because one disagrees with his interpretation of Darwin or Hegel is a sinister tribute to the supremacy of ideas in human affairs—but a tribute nevertheless” (323).
–George Steiner, “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” in Language and Silence, 1967
(1962) “I’ve been trying to measure the gap between the public and the poet, and to find some explanation why it is so great. I began with the time when there was neither poet nor public, when the anonymous song or ballad was transmitted from generation to generation by the peasantry, and poetry was a possession so common that poet and audience were lost in it; we have been irreversibly changed. At best we can gain from that or oral poetry that beauty which is in it, and the knowledge that poetry is not a thing reserved for a few, since it was once, and for a long time, treasured and fostered by so many. If, knowing this, we could be brought to modify our contemporary notion of poetry as a rarified and special and often difficult thing, it might have a salutary effect on our criticism and our practice of poetry as well…” (94) “There is a greater poetry than that of the ballads; they [ballads] do not contain those universal statements of life which we find in Dante and Shakespeare; but they were once a general possession as Shakespeare has never been. And that great poetry can, or once could, be a general possession is a fact which we should not forget: those of us who write poetry, and those of us who criticize it. If we could keep it in mind, I think it would give us a more just and adequate idea of poetry…” (22) “[A reporter] also quoted Mr. [T. S.] Eliot as saying that ‘criticism of poetry began and ended in enjoyment,’ which I think is the traditional practice. But the observation that is most illuminating in this report is that ‘a genuine poem may arouse a very great number of differing responses, yet there will be always something in common between them,’ and that this is what poetry is for. There have been some very strange responses to poems, as Mr. Richards has shown so convincingly in his book, Practical Criticism, responses which seemed plainly to contradict one another. Yet, even allowing for this, there will be something in common between people’s varied responses to a poem, and the poem exists for that purpose. If we believe this, poetry takes on a wider significance than it is currently allowed, and lets in the ordinary unanalytical reader, and with him human nature. People will read poetry for enjoyment, since that is what it is intended for; and they will not, except in a few exceptional cases, take it up as a strict methodical study. And it may be said that they will get more help, both in enjoyment and understanding, from the traditional critic who tells them what the poem means to him, than from the new one who warns them that it cannot possibly mean what it appears to mean, so that he has no choice left but to explain it. The divorce between the public audience and the poet is widened by this critical method; or perhaps one should rather say that the method legalizes the divorce as a settled and normal state. And that is what we feel to be wrong… (76-77)
“The first allegiance of any poet is to imaginative truth…but it does not mean that he should turn inward into the complex problems of poetry, or be concerned with poetry as a problem. That is something which has commonly happened in the last fifty years. There was some excuse for it after the years of experiment associated with Mr. Eliot and Mr. Pound. To them, about 1910, poetry seemed to have come to a dead end, and intense thought had to be given to it. The experiments of that time and the succeeding years have become a part of literary history. As they were new and strange when they were first attempted, they were found difficult by the reader; and they seem to have left for a time in the minds of poets and critics the belief that poetry should be difficult. The experimenters have done their work, and we should be thankful to them. There have been many experimenters in English poetry: Chaucer was one; and Spenser, Milton, Dryden, and Wordsworth were all experimenters. The experimenters of forty years ago did something to poetry and something for poetry. One kind of poetry was written before T.S. Eliot, and another kind after him. But the point of an experiment is that it should solve the particular problem set for it. This was done in the twenties…. There remains the temptation for poets to turn inward into poetry, to lock themselves in to a hygienic prison where they speak only to one another, and to the critic, their stern warder. In the end a poet must create his audience, and to do that he must turn outward. Even if he is conscious of having no audience, he must imagine one. That may be the way to conjure it out of the public void. Yeats, who had to wait for it long, declared that you must have an audience, and that he could not write without one. Anyone reading his poetry must feel that the audience was an imaginary one long before it became real. To imagine an audience, one must hold up before himself the variety of human life, for from that diversity the audience will be drawn. The poet need not think of the public—its vastness and impersonality would daunt anyone; he should reflect instead that in no other age than ours—I mean the last hundred years or so—has a poet had to deal with it. He has to see past it, or through it, to the men and women, with their individual lives, who in some strange way and without their choice are part of it, and yet are hidden by it (108-110).
–Edwin Muir, The Estate of Poetry
(1963) “That Karl Marx could not have envisioned the extremes to which the Soviet totalitarians would put his literary theories is obvious. We know, for instance, that his colleague Frederick Engels wrote the following in a letter to an early ‘proletarian’ novelist who asked for Engel’s help in popularizing his novel: ‘Look at your heroine, with her dialectical materialist eyes and her economic determinist nose and her surplus value mouth. You take her in your arms and you kiss her. I know I wouldn’t want to’ ” (145).
–Vernon Hall, Jr., A Short History of Literary Criticism
(1963) “When President Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words, ‘So you’re the little woman who made the book that made this great war,’ he was speaking as a political realist who had learned by experience to respect the power of the pen. It was not for him to refer slightingly to ‘mere literature.’ Without Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in the opinion of Sumner, there would have been no Lincoln in the White House.
“But the historian must avoid hyperbole. In spite of the enormous vogue of Mrs. Stowe’s novel, it is doubtful if a book had much power to change the course of events. More persuasive than her tender pleadings was the harsh propaganda carried on by Abolitionists for over thirty years. And mightiest of all was the trend of liberal opinion through the nineteenth century, which was bound to sweep out of existence even the most beneficent and patriarchal of feudal survivals. In the last analysis slavery was abolished because men could no longer endure the thought of it. Shrewd common people were the first to sense how the tide was turning” (563).
Bibliography – 1800s to 2003
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003
Social and Political Novel
Social and Political Literature