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Partisans

In response to:

The Partisan from the November 23, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

Do Literary Studies Have an Ideology?” Frederick Crews asked in 1970. Yes, he answered, they have a liberal ideology which masks the injustice of capitalism (often contrary to the intention of the students of literature themselves):

Though it may be bad taste to say so, capitalism rests on exploitation and social inequality; these are not its casual by-products but in large part its raison d’être. The main task of capitalist ideology is to disguise this fact, whether through the fantasy of steady social progress or that of equal opportunity or that of saving the world from all sorts of evils, from pestilence and paganism through Bolshevism….

For whatever reason, fundamental critical perceptions tend to be muted or diverted into a reformist vein. In any crisis…the typical scholar can be counted on to welcome a speedy restoration of order and routine, no matter who is in sight.

This is to say that most scholars are liberals, and that liberalism, for all its amiable intentions and good works, is somewhat handicapped for political understanding. Liberalism takes the most recent phase of capitalism to be reality itself in all its mysterious complexity, and then improvises ad hominem explanations for whatever social dysfunctions it perceives.

That was Mr. Crews in 1970. By now his faith in liberalism and capitalism has been restored to the point where he can blame Philip Rahv for not being willing “to embrace the liberal institutions that protect ‘freedom of expression and experiment’ ” (NYR, November 23). Rahv, he says, “never admitted the extent of his debt to liberal capitalism. As an editor, he stood behind the shield of the First Amendment. As a judge of literature, he upheld a magnanimity of vision that could never flourish in a state founded on the victory of one former underclass.” Freedom of expression and the First Amendment and magnanimity of vision are fine things, but they were not created by “liberal capitalism,” and they are not its exclusive property. Mr. Crews is doing exactly what he warned us not to do: using an ideological fantasy (capitalism alone protects free expression) not so much to defend capitalism as to cut off all discussion of it; welcoming the restoration of order and routine (“dry martinis” in a world “full of prosperity, compromise, and chatter”); mistaking the most recent phase of capitalism for reality itself; dismissing criticism with ad hominem explanations (“an irrational appeal that Marxism makes to people of a certain prickly, combative, and power-hungry disposition”). Not one word in his essay suggests that there is anything wrong with either capitalism or liberalism, that there is any difficulty in honestly combining the two, that the war in Vietnam called into question the benevolence of liberal capitalism, or that America needs radical social or cultural criticism. Mr. Crews even poses a false alternative between social and cultural criticism: if you harbor “revolutionary impulses,” then you have no right to attack “mass philistinism,” you are apparently supposed to be fond of dime-store novels and People magazine; if you have “a belief in cultural hierarchy,” which seems to mean a belief that some books matter more than others, then you are stuck with the label “elitist” and expected to be grateful to the establishment. Freud’s “ideas about civilization” are dismissed as “gratuitously tragic,” but at the same time it is idle to hope “that history would one day give birth to a true realm of freedom as described by Marx.”

Mr. Crews is not obliged to become a Marxist, or to go back to being a Freudian, or to admire the Partisan Review intellectuals more than he does, or to subscribe to a party line or to make some revolutionary gesture. But he should remember his own account of the way critical insight is muted, diverted, and brought out:

The hallmark of most criticism produced today is precisely its low degree of commitment, its air of occupying a niche rather than of claiming some territory. The niche is the one where most of us reside—the affluent and multifarious university, the crowning ornament of a credit-card civilization whose basis cannot be examined with a clear conscience. Our obvious difference from the liveliest critics of thirty years ago is that we are completely at home in academe. And if the most general trait of recent criticism is its absence of worry over what the business and loyalty of the critic should be, this is because the answer is already known: he should enter the academic hierarchy and do whatever it asks of him.

The situation has not changed. There is no more reason to be reconciled to it now than there was in 1970.

Peter Wirth

Oakland, California

Frederick Crews replies:

Mr. Wirth’s long quotations come from a talk I gave at a Modern Language Association forum in 1969, when I tried in vain to get MLA radicals and regulars to acknowledge some common ground. Further citations may give an idea of the hope I was pursuing on that day:

Those among us who grumble about repressive tolerance are exercising it as they complain, and would pine for it again if it were supplanted by repression pure and simple.

Whether we have tigerish dreams of revolution or pastoral yearnings for the vanished academic cloister, we all inhabit a mixed world, as comfortable as it is corrupt. Perhaps because America is still very much a Protestant country, what we have most in common seems to be our unwillingness to accept this compromised reality and work within it knowingly.

I think it can be assumed that all of us are primarily concerned with truth, not power, and that we cherish our mental independence.

What naïveté! The moment the debate was over, one of my fellow panelists drew me aside and assured me that he and the others in his faction were primarily concerned with power, and that I was an idiot to think otherwise. He was right. In accepting the Executive Secretary’s invitation to mediate between theatrical militants and a mortified old guard, I had signed up to play the buffoon. Mr. Wirth’s selective quoting brings back those fevered days, when leftists battened on slogan-words and vied to see who could strike the most revolutionary pose.

I gather that Mr. Wirth is a Marxist, whatever that may mean at this date. As such, he has scanned my essay and seen red. The result is a cluster of misreadings: (1) that I claimed that “capitalism alone protects free expression,” (2) that I “cut off all discussion” of a topic that was scarcely at issue, (3) that in mentioning the postwar situation I was “welcoming the restoration of order and routine,” alias “dry martinis,” and (4) that I confounded the most recent phase of capitalism with reality itself.

Mr. Wirth is the ideologue who sees everything in either/or terms. If I say that a literary critic—one whom I praise and feel indebted to—failed to acknowledge the institutions that shielded him, I must have forgotten about Vietnam. If I point out that the critic eventually isolated himself by trying to be at once a cultural elitist and a quasi-revolutionary, I must be renouncing all social justice. In conclusion, it is implied, I have been “bought out” by the academy and its hierarchy. Mr. Wirth is too cunning politically to entertain the wild possibility that a reviewer might simply be trying to be honest about a mixed record.

I find it interesting that Mr. Wirth does not challenge any of my factual assertions. Knowledgeable people have told me that my remarks about Philip Rahv were just and accurate. That is what I care about: making defensible statements. I will leave the ideological balance sheet to accountants like Mr. Wirth, who still have their Sixties ledgers handy.

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