The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet
by Norman Podhoretz
Simon and Schuster, 221 pp., $16.95
The title and subtitle together make up a quotation from Lionel Trilling. The book is made up of nine essays: on the writers of The God That Failed group; on Camus and his critics; on Orwell; on F.R. Leavis; on Henry Adams; on “The Adversary Culture and the New Class”; on Kissinger, on Milan Kundera, and on Solzhenitsyn. All of the essays contain—though in varying proportions—both literary criticism and political comment. In his introduction, Mr. Podhoretz reasserts his belief “that it is possible for a critic to speak openly from a particular political perspective and to make political judgments without permitting such judgments to replace or obscure literary values as such.”
I agree with Mr. Podhoretz that this is indeed possible. I also believe that Mr. Podhoretz genuinely set out to separate “political judgments” from “literary values”; and that he also genuinely believes that he has been successful in this undertaking. I think he has been occasionally successful, and more often not. He tries to be good, but when his “political” blood is up—and it is, much of the time—he can’t help forcing a “literary” point (or any other point if it comes to that).
I should however, at this point, declare interest. I happen to be among Mr. Podhoretz’s targets, in his essay “Camus and His Critics.” A short book of mine on Camus, published in the 1970s, is found by Mr. Podhoretz to be a “travesty” offered “in the name of art,” but actually in the service of my “anti-anti-Communist political passions.” So I am accused of having succumbed to the very temptation—that of politicizing literature—which Mr. Podhoretz believes himself to have consistently resisted. And when—as here—I doubt the extent of his success, I fear such criticism may be imputed again to the power of those political passions which he assumes to hold me in their fell grip.
As the reader will already appreciate, argument along those lines could become tiresome. I mention the matter as a kind of “health warning,” in justice to Mr. Podhoretz and to the reader, and leave it there.
Politically speaking, the most ambitious of these essays is “If Orwell Were Alive Today.” This essay ends with the words, “I am convinced that if Orwell were alive today, he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the Left.” The claim here is, of course, made on behalf of a group of which the essayist is himself a leading member: Mr. Podhoretz is described on the jacket of this book as “America’s most outspoken neoconservative intellectual.” How important it is for the essayist to be able to claim Orwell for his neoconservatives may be inferred from a passage near the beginning of the essay “If Orwell Were Alive Today.”
This enormous reputation by itself would make Orwell “One of those writers who are well worth stealing” [a phrase of Orwell’s own, about Dickens]. It is, after all, no …