Literature and the Sixth Sense
by Philip Rahv
Houghton Mifflin, 445 pp., $10.00
The Writing on the Wall
by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt, Brace & World, 213 pp., $6.75
The first of these books is a retrospective of some completeness, and contains all the literary criticism the author wants to preserve except for some work on Dostoevsky, which he is saving for a book devoted to that author. The second, consisting of essays written over the last seven years of thereabouts, is a different kind of show. Of the first we are bound to ask not only how the earlier work has kept, how it looks beside the later, but also what kind of a personality the whole thing testifies to—whether, allowing for change with the years, we can hear one voice and read one mind. And in this sense we are asking a lot more of the first book than of the second. We are judging not the skill and utility of this piece or that, but the authority and the authenticity of a life.
Some critics tend to be ventriloquial, and sound from time to time like their topics, or like other critics. Others, whatever they’re saying, retain a recognizable voice at all times: the gruff mandarinism of Empson, for example. Rahv is of this second class, and with him the continuity of the vocal tone is a reflection of a radical set of values which remains essentially unchanged. His criticism has strength rather than ingenuity, eloquence rather than wit. He mimics nobody, preferring his own voice with its certainty of timbre and its dynamic range (loud but controlled in polemic). Consequently he collects well, keeps well. To me, a critic with virtually nothing in common with him (except inability to read proof), the weight of Rahv’s book, its clarity and certainty, are extremely impressive. Apart from anything else, it was no small achievement to go on doing unfashionable things, to follow one’s own road, when American criticism, for virtually a generation, was headed in a quite different direction. It called for sobriety and patience, for a sense of vocation and a sense of history.
“The Sixth Sense” is a sense of history; Nietzsche said that the development of historical insight in the modern epoch constituted what was virtually a new faculty of the mind, a sixth sense. Rahv values the possession of it, and thinks it unfortunate that America (“Amnesia”) lacks it. This lack explains not only his quarrels with American literature and its critics, but his repeated attempts to supply historical schemata for general use. In doing so he is using the sixth sense, and, as he himself observes, his ways of doing so derive in part from an early training in Marxism. They also derive from a slightly later experience, the exercise of detecting the cant and lies of the party-liners. And there isn’t the least doubt that Rahv has retained not only “a measure of social and ideological commitment” but also “a certain kind of realism” and “a polemical tone.” The mind that cut away the pretense and the political opportunism from the concept of proletarian literature (this …