In her recent essential collection of essays, A Human Eye (2009), Adrienne Rich writes in “Poetry and the Forgotten Future”:
Antonio Gramsci wrote of the culture of the future that “new” individual artists can’t be manufactured: art is a part of society – but that to imagine a new socialist society is to imagine a new kind of art that we can’t foresee from where we now stand. “One must speak,” Gramsci wrote, “of a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality and, therefore, a world intimately ingrained in ‘possible artists’ and ‘possible works of art.'”
In any present society, a distinction needs to be made between the “avante-garde that always remains the same” – what a friend of mine has called “the poetry of false problems” – and a poetics searching for transformative meaning on the shoreline of what can now be thought or said. Adonis, writing of Arab poetry, reminds Arab poets that “modernity should be a creative vision, or it will be no more than a fashion. Fashion grows old from the moment it is born, while creativity is eternally modern.”
Case in point for fiction, the relatively unknown novel Banjo (1929), by the great poet and novelist Claude McKay, which remains these past 80 years easily more fresh, incisive, and urgent than the vast majority of the celebrated works of its time and our time.
Banjo, and the work and thought of McKay in general, is vastly underappreciated, not least in light of the work and thought of Gramsci and Rich, as well as that of Raymond Williams and other progressive or revolutionary – liberatory – critics. Below, an ever-timely excerpt from Williams’ “The New Metropolis” in The Country and the City (1973):
It is often said now, in a guilty way, that the British people as a whole benefited from the system of imperialism. If we add up the figures of the movement of wealth we cannot doubt that this is true. The rise in the general standard of living depended, in large part, on the exploitation of millions who were seen only as backward peoples, as natives. Much of the guilt and hatred and prejudice bred through those generations was still there when, ironically, unemployment in the colonies prompted a reverse migration, and following an ancient pattern the displaced from the ‘country’ areas came, following the wealth and the stories of wealth, to the ‘metropolitan’ centre, where they were at once pushed in, overcrowded, among the indigenous poor… London was at one of its peaks as an imperialist city when it created its desperate cenrtre of poverty and misery in the East End. For wealth from the Empire, channeled through so few hands, was a critical source of the political and economic power which the same ruling class continued to exercise. The advantages of living in a developed industrial society, even at the lower ends of the scale, were of course more widely diffused. Even then, internally, these workers were directly exploited. But for many of these advantages British workers had to pay: with blood in repeated wars which had little or nothing to do with their immediate interests; and in deeper ways, in confusion, loss of direction, deformation of the spirit. It is the story of the city and the country in its harshest form, and now on an unimaginably complex scale.
It is now widely believed in Britain that this system has ended. But political imperialism was only ever a stage. It was preceded by economic and trading controls, backed where necessary by force. It has been effectively succeeded by economic, monetary and commercial controls which again, at every point that resistance mounts, are at once supported by political, cultural and military intervention. The dominant relationships are still, in this sense, of a city and a country, at the point of maximum exploitation.
What is offered as an idea, to hide this exploitation, is a modern version of the old idea of ‘improvement’: a scale of human societies which theoretically culminates in universal industrialization. All the ‘country’ will become ‘city’: that is the logic of its development: a simple linear scale, along which degrees of ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ can be marked. But the reality is quite different…
We are already familiar with the [novels] of Englishmen who experienced the tensions of this process…but we have only to go across to the Indian and African and West Indian writers to get a different and necessary perspective. The tea plantation is seen from the other side in Mulk Raj Anand’s Two Leaves and a Bud (1937). Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) ends with a white man collecting material for a book on ‘The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger’, and this ironic challenge is telling because we have all read such accounts, but now see the process from within a rural community as the white men – missionaries, district officers – arrive with their mercenary soldiers and police. What is impressive about Things Fall Apart is that as in some English literature of rural change, as late as Hardy, the internal tensions of the society are made clear, so that we can understand the modes of the penetration which would in any case, in its process of expansion, have come. The first converts to the alien religion are the marginal people of the traditional society. The alien law and religion are bitterly resented and resisted, but the trading-station, in palm-oil, is welcomed, as an addition to the slash-and-burn subsistence farming of yams. The strongest man, Okonkwo, is destroyed in a very complicated process of internal contradictions and external invasion.
We can see the same complications, at a later stage and in different societies in the resistance movements of the country people against English power, in the Kenya of James Ngugi’s Weep Not, Child and A Grain of Wheat, or in the Malaya of Han Suyin’s And The Rain My Drink. What has been officially presented, to English readers, as savagery followed by terrorism, is seen in its real terms: so many different rural societies – unidealised, containing their own tensions – invaded and transformed by an uncomprehending and often brutal alien system. It is significant that the idealization of the peasant, in the modern English middle-class tradition, was not extended, when it might have mattered, to the peasants, the plantation-workers, the coolies of these occupied societies. Yet in a new and universal sense this was the penetration, transformation and subjugation of ‘the country’ by the ‘city’: long-established rural communities uprooted and redirected by the military and economic power of a developing metropolitan imperialism…
…when we look at the power and impetus of the metropolitan drives, often indeed accelerated by their own internal crises, we cannot be in any doubt that a different direction, if it is to be found, will necessarily involve revolutionary change. The depth of the crisis, and the power of those who continue to dominate it, are too great for any easier or more congenial way.
Within this now vast mobility, which is the daily history of our world, literature continues to embody the almost infinitely varied experiences and interpretations… Yet we have got so used to thinking of common experience through the alienating screens of foreignness and race that all too often we take the particularity of these stories as merely exotic. A social process is happening there, in an initially unfamiliar society, and that is its importance. But as we gain perspective, from the long history of the literature of country and city, we see how much, at different times and in different places, it is a connecting process, in what has to be seen ultimately as a common history.
Back to Adrienne Rich and her new book, this excerpt from her essay, “Three Classics for New Readers”:
Che [Guevara] elaborates [the] theme [of “censorship by the market”]:
The superstructure [of capitalism] imposes a kind of art in which the artist must be educated [that is, must be of an educated class]. Rebels are subdued by the machine, and only exceptional talents [I read this phrase as in ironic quotes] may create their own work. The rest become shamefaced hirelings or are crushed…. Meaningless anguish [and] vulgar amusement thus become safety valves for human anxiety. The idea of using art as a weapon of protest is combated.
But he also points to the blindness of earlier socialist revolutions-in-process, where “an exaggerated dogmatism” has tried to address the question of culture, demanding “the formally exact representation of nature” in art, followed by ” a mechanical representation of the society they [revolutionary leadership] wanted to show: the ideal society, almost without conflicts or contradictions, that they sought to create.”
Che struggles here with the dialectic of art as simultaneous embodiment and shaper of consciousness, rooted in past forms and materials even as it gestures toward a still unachieved reality. What is to be the freedom of the artist in the new society? It can be difficult for those living under the template of capitalist relations to conceive of how a freedom, expanded to all, to each and every person, could expand, not restrict, the freedom of the imagination, the artist, and the very possibilities of art. Difficult for those who are already artists – even as, outraged, we are forced to “market ourselves piecemeal” and struggle for what Marx called “disposable time” – to discern the “invisible cage” within which we work. For the cage may also exist within us. Difficult, too, for the navigators of a transitional society to apprehend the peculiar, though not exceptional, labor of the artist….
The serious revolutionary, like the serious artist, can’t afford to lead a sentimental or self-deceiving life. Patience, open eyes, and critical imagination are required of both kinds of creativity. The writers gathered in Manifesto [Guevara, Marx and Engels, Luxemburg] all speak emotionally of the human condition, of human realization not as losing oneself within a mass collectivity but as release from the numbed senses, the robotization of advancing capitalist society. Marx writes of “the complete emancipation of all human qualities and senses [from the mere sense of having]. … The eye has become a human eye when its object has become a human, social object.” Rosa Luxemburg speaks of “social happiness,” of the mass strike as “creativity,” of “freedom” as “no special privilege,” and of “the love of every beautiful day” required to live in a world of struggle. And Che of the revolutionary as “moved by great feelings of love,” though this might “seem ridiculous” in the cynical climate of bourgeois politics; of the need for a “new human being,” created through responsible participation in a society in which everyone has a stake.
If this is still only a partial, unrealized vision, let us have more of it. …
In James “Scully’s Art of Praxis,” Rich notes:
Most critical writing on poetry in the United States (I can’t speak of elsewhere) has reached a pretty low point: degenerated into biographical juicy bits extracted from or read into poems; or “poststructuralist” jargon. Any poet whose work is both artistically searching and ideologically dissenting knows how shallow, therefore ultimately dismissive, even favorable critical response can be, isolating poems from their historical and social fields of energy – save perhaps as the poetry can be related to a recognized aesthetic movement. (But aesthetic movements, too, belong to historical and social processes, and need critiquing in that light.)
This is a serious loss for poets (who might benefit from more informed and penetrating criticism); for readers (who might welcome disscussion that could bring their reading of poetry into focus with a world they know all too well, help them become the great readers Whitman declared a great poetry would need); and for the trajectory of all whose desire for social justice is inseperable from their need for beauty.
The imagination of an unrealized, human social order is as passionate and ineluctable as the artist’s search for unrealized expression. …
Dennis Morton celebrates A Human eye in “An Appreciation…”
More on Raymond Williams’ thought from Andrew Seal.