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Sunday, August 12, 2018

George Steiner on Marxism and criticism: Reading notes on Language and silence: essays 1958-1966 by George Steiner




Language and silence: essays 1958-1966
by George Steiner

_________


In his 1958 essay "Marxism and the Literary Critic" George Steiner gives a generous survey of the breadth of the genre at that time. He does, however, persistently portray "Zhdanovism" as consistent with Lenin, despite acknowledging early in the piece that Lenin's 1905 statements were firmly grounded in a polemical struggle of that time, and not applicable for all time.

Some underlinings from the essay  "MARXISM AND THE LITERARY CRITIC."

....Engels wrote to Minna Kautsky in November 1885:

I am by no means an opponent of tendentious, programmatic poetry (Tendenzpoesie) as such. The father of tragedy, Aeschylus, and the father of comedy, Aristophanes, were both strong Tendenzpoeten no less than Dante and Cervantes; and it is the finest element in Schiller's Kabale und Liebe that it is the first Party.

….Organization and Party Literature," published in Novaia Jizn in November 1905, Lenin wrote:

Literature must become Party literature.… Down with un-partisan littérateurs! Down with the supermen of literature! Literature must become a part of the general cause of the proletariat, "a small cog and a small screw" in the social-democratic mechanism, one and indivisible—a mechanism set in motion by the entire conscious vanguard of the whole working class. Literature must become an integral part of the organised, methodical, and unified labours of the social-democratic Party.

These injunctions were put forward as tactical arguments in the early polemic against aestheticism. But cited out of context, Lenin's call for Tendenzpoesie in the most naked sense, has come to be regarded as a general canon of the Marxist interpretation of literature.

....These injunctions were put forward as tactical arguments in the early polemic against aestheticism. But cited out of context, Lenin's call for Tendenzpoesie in the most naked sense, has come to be regarded as a general canon of the Marxist interpretation of literature.

....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."

....Time and again the ideal of a literature in which "the opinions of the author remain hidden" has clashed with the Leninist formula of militant partiality.

....literature is centrally conditioned by historical, social, and economic forces; the conviction that ideological content and the articulate world-view of a writer are crucially engaged in the act of literary judgment; a suspicion of any aesthetic doctrine which places major stress on the irrational elements in poetic creation and on the demands of "pure form." Finally, they share a bias toward dialectical proceedings in argument. But however committed they may be to dialectical materialism, para-Marxists approach a work of art with respect for its integrity and for the vital center of its being.

....regarding as inferior the kinds of literature which, in Keats's phrase, have a palpable design upon us.

....practice the arts of criticism, not those of censorship.

....rootedness of the imagination in time and in place

....insists on the radical complexity of the ideological structure, on the fact that relationships between economic forces and philosophic or poetic systems are never automatic and unilinear.

...."Form and content constitute a unity, but a unity of contradictions," said Bukharin in a notable aphorism.

....Both as a stylist and thinker, Benjamin is difficult to characterize. In him, more perhaps than in any other Marxist, the texture of language precedes and determines the contours of argument. His prose is close-knit and allusive; it lies in ambush, seizing on its subject by indirection. Walter Benjamin is the R. P. Blackmur of Marxism—but of a Marxism which is private and oblique. Like Rilke and Kafka, Benjamin was possessed by a sense of the brutality of industrial life, by a haunted, apocalyptic vision of the modern metropolis (the Grosstadt of Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge). He found his feelings verified and documented by Marx's theory of "dehumanization" and Engels' account of the working class. Thus, Benjamin's essay "On Certain Motifs in Baudelaire" (1939) is, essentially, a lyric meditation on the brooding immensity of nineteenth-century Paris and the concordant solitude of the poet.

....dependence of aesthetic sensibility on changes in the setting and reproduction of painting and sculpture.

....essence of Fascism to beautify the outward trappings and actual inhumanities of political life.

....Communism, on the other hand, does not render politics artistic. It makes art political.

....Theodor Adorno has observed that Benjamin injected dialectical materialism into his own system as a necessary poison; around this foreign body and creative irritant his sensibility crystallized.

....ideas can only be understood in connection with the material realities of life, and the realities of life can only be understood in terms of their inner conflicts, movement and change.

.....He seeks to distinguish between negative and positive strains in Romantic sensibility. With the former he associates Dostoevsky. This is a point of some importance. The problem of how to approach Dostoevsky is the moment of truth in all Marxist criticism. Not even Lukács has been able to disengage himself from the Leninist and Stalinist condemnation of the Dostoevskyan world-view as one implacably hostile to dialectical materialism. A Marxist critic who dealt with the works of Dostoevsky, prior to 1954, was by that mere action giving proof of real courage and independence. In reference to The Brothers Karamazov, Finkelstein says of Dostoevsky that by emphasising the irrational over the rational, hinting at subconscious drives which could be neither understood nor controlled, he led to the climax of romanticism in which the artist and human being cuts himself off completely from the world as unreal.

....varying strategies within the larger context of the Marxist tradition.

....outside the rigid bounds of Party ideology, there are numerous critics and philosophers of art whose work is either centrally or in substantial measure conditioned by the dialectical method and historical mythology of Marxism. Among them there are theoreticians and practical critics whom anyone seriously concerned with literature would be wrong to ignore.

....These injunctions were put forward as tactical arguments in the early polemic against aestheticism. But cited out of context, Lenin's call for Tendenzpoesie in the most naked sense, has come to be regarded as a general canon of the Marxist interpretation of literature.

....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."

....Time and again the ideal of a literature in which "the opinions of the author remain hidden" has clashed with the Leninist formula of militant partiality.

....literature is centrally conditioned by historical, social, and economic forces; the conviction that ideological content and the articulate world-view of a writer are crucially engaged in the act of literary judgment; a suspicion of any aesthetic doctrine which places major stress on the irrational elements in poetic creation and on the demands of "pure form." Finally, they share a bias toward dialectical proceedings in argument. But however committed they may be to dialectical materialism, para-Marxists approach a work of art with respect for its integrity and for the vital center of its being.

....regarding as inferior the kinds of literature which, in Keats's phrase, have a palpable design upon us.

....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."

....Time and again the ideal of a literature in which "the opinions of the author remain hidden" has clashed with the Leninist formula of militant partiality.

....literature is centrally conditioned by historical, social, and economic forces; the conviction that ideological content and the articulate world-view of a writer are crucially engaged in the act of literary judgment; a suspicion of any aesthetic doctrine which places major stress on the irrational elements in poetic creation and on the demands of "pure form." Finally, they share a bias toward dialectical proceedings in argument. But however committed they may be to dialectical materialism, para-Marxists approach a work of art with respect for its integrity and for the vital center of its being.

....regarding as inferior the kinds of literature which, in Keats's phrase, have a palpable design upon us

....practice the arts of criticism, not those of censorship.

....rootedness of the imagination in time and in place

....insists on the radical complexity of the ideological structure, on the fact that relationships between economic forces and philosophic or poetic systems are never automatic and unilinear.

...."Form and content constitute a unity, but a unity of contradictions," said Bukharin in a notable aphorism.

....Both as a stylist and thinker, Benjamin is difficult to characterize. In him, more perhaps than in any other Marxist, the texture of language precedes and determines the contours of argument. His prose is close-knit and allusive; it lies in ambush, seizing on its subject by indirection. Walter Benjamin is the R. P. Blackmur of Marxism—but of a Marxism which is private and oblique. Like Rilke and Kafka, Benjamin was possessed by a sense of the brutality of industrial life, by a haunted, apocalyptic vision of the modern metropolis (the Grosstadt of Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge). He found his feelings verified and documented by Marx's theory of "dehumanization" and Engels' account of the working class. Thus, Benjamin's essay "On Certain Motifs in Baudelaire" (1939) is, essentially, a lyric meditation on the brooding immensity of nineteenth-century Paris and the concordant solitude of the poet.

....dependence of aesthetic sensibility on changes in the setting and reproduction of painting and sculpture.

....essence of Fascism to beautify the outward trappings and actual inhumanities of political life.

....Communism, on the other hand, does not render politics artistic. It makes art political.

....Theodor Adorno has observed that Benjamin injected dialectical materialism into his own system as a necessary poison; around this foreign body and creative irritant his sensibility crystallized.

....ideas can only be understood in connection with the material realities of life, and the realities of life can only be understood in terms of their inner conflicts, movement and change.

....Finkelstein discerns in the abstraction and "difficulty" of modern art a direct consequence of the estrangement between the individual artist and the masses. He concurs with Engels in believing that this estrangement was brought on by the commercial aesthetics of the bourgeoisie.

....He seeks to distinguish between negative and positive strains in Romantic sensibility. With the former he associates Dostoevsky. This is a point of some importance. The problem of how to approach Dostoevsky is the moment of truth in all Marxist criticism. Not even Lukács has been able to disengage himself from the Leninist and Stalinist condemnation of the Dostoevskyan world-view as one implacably hostile to dialectical materialism. A Marxist critic who dealt with the works of Dostoevsky, prior to 1954, was by that mere action giving proof of real courage and independence. In reference to The Brothers Karamazov, Finkelstein says of Dostoevsky that by emphasising the irrational over the rational, hinting at subconscious drives which could be neither understood nor controlled, he led to the climax of romanticism in which the artist and human being cuts himself off completely from the world as unreal.

....varying strategies within the larger context of the Marxist tradition.

....outside the rigid bounds of Party ideology, there are numerous critics and philosophers of art whose work is either centrally or in substantial measure conditioned by the dialectical method and historical mythology of Marxism. Among them there are theoreticians and practical critics whom anyone seriously concerned with literature would be wrong to ignore.

....Let us now ask the larger question: what have Marxism, as a philosophy, and dialectical materialism, as a strategy of insight, contributed to the resources of the literary critic?

....concept of dissociation

....a writer or poet who does not apprehend the objective significance of his own works." Between his explicit ideology and the representation of life which he in fact conveys, there may be a contradiction.

....distinction which Marxist theory draws between "realism" and "naturalism."

....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 "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 theessential and the secondary, the unimportant, on the same plane."

....In naturalism there is accumulation; in realism what Henry James called the "deep-breathing economy" of organic form.

....Marxism has sharpened the critic's sense of time and place.

....see the work of art as rooted in temporal and material circumstance.

....a study of the audience. What can be said, historically and sociologically, of the Elizabethan spectator? In what respect was the Dickensian novel a calculated response to the evolution of a new reading public?

....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."

....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.

....distinguish Marxism and the philosophy of art of Marx and Engels from the concrete actualities of Stalinist rule.

....The abandonment of values under the pressures of commercialism, the failure of the journalist-critic to discriminate between art and kitsch, does contribute to a larger decay.

....not frivolous.




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