The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet
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 small thing to have the greatest political writer of the age on one’s side: it gives confidence, authority, and weight to one’s own political views.
This passage is not, of course, programmatic. That is, Mr. Podhoretz is not here signaling his own intention to “steal” George Orwell; although he may possibly be inadvertently revealing the power of a temptation to do just that. Rather, he is rebuking other people for their efforts to steal a writer who properly belongs to the neoconservatives—Mr. Podhoretz’s own group. As a matter of fact, Mr. Podhoretz’s point about left-wing efforts to “steal Orwell” has acquired more force since he first made it (in January 1983). In Britain, the year 1984 brought on an influential and misguided effort to depict the book Nineteen Eighty-four as a satire impartially—from a democratic socialist point of view—directed at both East and West, the Soviet Union and the United States. This effort, backed (or rather, led) by the considerable authority of Professor Bernard Crick—Orwell’s biographer, and editor of the annotated Nineteen Eighty-four—may indeed rightly be described as “stealing Orwell.” Nineteen Eighty-four is highly specific in its satire of Soviet Society—and in its warning to Britain against the danger presented by Soviet Sympathizers—and contains hardly anything that can be construed, without twisting and wrenching, as satire on the West.
Mr. Podhoretz’s resistance to the Orwell stealers of the left is fully justified. His claim to Orwell, on behalf of the neoconservatives, is another matter. Certainly, Orwell’s last two books—Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four are (pace Professor Crick) as anticommunist as the stoutest neoconservative could desire. But this doesn’t mean that Orwell would necessarily be attracted to neoconservatism. He was essentially a loner, with a marked and consistent distaste for cliques and coteries, and for politicoliterary intellectuals hunting in packs, on the scent—usually a distant scent—of power. In Orwell’s own day—and especially in his last years—the most conspicuous groups of that kind were active on the left. But I see no reason to suppose that he would have liked these phenomena any better when they turned up on the right, as they have in the last quarter of the twentieth century. For example, one of the intellectual manifestations which Orwell most despised was what he called “back scratching”: the politico-literary coterie practice of puffing the works of fellow members. And as it happens, the jacket of The Bloody Crossroads—in which a number of Mr. Podhoretz’s political friends praise him for his literary prowess—is a classic case of politico-literary back scratching. I really can’t see George Orwell dans cette galère.
Mr. Podhoretz quotes Orwell on “smelly little orthodoxies.” Without entering into the game of “if Orwell were alive today,” one may point out that while Orwell actually was alive, some of the things he most disliked about the “smelly little orthodoxies” were characteristics—like those mentioned above—which are today salient or sniffable in neoconservatism.
In his essay on F.R. Leavis—the best in the collection, and the most free from polemics—Mr. Podhoretz finds that Leavis (whom he generally admires) in his writing on D.H. Lawrence “sins against the disinterestedness in whose absence literary criticism becomes a species of covert ideologizing.”
Coming from Norman Podhoretz, that is a breathtaking judgment. What is admirable about it is its transparent innocence. Mr. Podhoretz really does believe himself to possess the kind of disinterestedness against which even Leavis could sin. And this disinterestedness which he confidently attributes to himself seems to be felt as a kind of talisman which automatically preserves his criticism from turning into ideologizing. Few readers of The Bloody Crossroads—outside the neoconservative camp—are likely to be convinced that Mr. Podhoretz’s talisman is really in working order. Not all the time, but much of the time, he appears to be forcing a critical judgment to make a political point.
This is perhaps most apparent in the essay on Camus. Mr. Podhoretz doesn’t annex Camus outright, as he does with Orwell. He is content with having “the best of Camus” on his side. Mr. Podhoretz the literary critic discovers, in his disinterested way, that the best of Camus is to be found in the work by Camus which happens to be most to the political taste of Mr. Podhoretz the neoconservative ideologue. This is Camus’s anticommunist essay of 1951, L’Homme révolté (translated as The Rebel). This is an eccentric opinion—since Camus’s reputation is based mainly on three novels—but it might be none the worse for that, if Mr. Podhoretz were to establish it by bringing out the neglected excellences of the essay he values so highly, and which other critics (including myself) have considered tedious and pretentious. But Mr. Podhoretz devotes only a few lines, with several laudatory adjectives, to The Rebel itself. His strategy for validating this particular piece of literary reassessment consists of: (a) flat assertion that The Rebel is “the best of Camus”; (b) attacks on the supposed political motivation—failure of disinterestedness—of critics who fail to rate the work so highly as Mr. Podhoretz says is its due; (c) depreciation, on what appears to be random grounds, of Camus’s other works, including the best known and most admired.
Camus’s sin, in Mr. Podhoretz’s eyes, was that he failed to keep going on about anticommunism as he had done in The Rebel. For Mr. Podhoretz to think thus is quite understandable. But Mr. Podhoretz goes much further than this. He has convinced himself that Camus himself felt this way. The sense of guilt that pervades The Fall has nothing to do with Christianity or anything of that kind, according to this critic. No, what Camus’s guilt was all about was his own failure to stand up for the United States, as Sartre had stood up for the Soviet Union.”Sartre…chose the Soviet Union and was not afraid to say so; Camus, in effect, chose the United States and was afraid to say so.” That is what made Camus a “penitent.” All that religious stuff in The Fall is just there to disguise and deaden Camus’s actual political guilt, for his desertion of Uncle Sam. Religion “provides Camus with a pretentious way to avoid the full and rigorous accounting with himself he so desperately needed and wanted to undertake.” What a pity the novelist did not have a neoconservative father confessor at his side, to get his penance right for him, and see his books got rewritten.
Mr. Podhoretz does not produce any evidence in support of this interpretation of The Fall, but then he can’t be expected to, can he? Camus himself—Mr. Podhoretz’s Camus—didn’t know what he was doing or, insofar as he did know what he was doing, was anxious to cover up the evidence, even from himself. So it is for Mr. Podhoretz, the literary critic, to divine intuitively what Camus was up to in The Fall. And it happens, as so often in these pages, that what Mr. Podhoretz, the critic, is able to divine is very much to the taste of Mr. Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologue.
Mr. Podhoretz’s idiosyncratically Americano-centric interpretation of The Fall is I think symptomatic of the main intellectual weakness of neoconservatism, its obsessive reductivism. Everything has to be about us and them, the United States and the Soviet Union, God and Satan. That, for example, a French-Algerian writer, Albert Camus, might have been more interested, in the late Fifties, in the Franco-Algerian war, then raging, and in his own painfully conflicting feelings about that, than in either the United States or the Soviet Union, does not occur to Mr. Podhoretz even as a possibility. Of Course the author of The Fall had to be thinking about the United States. What else, after all, when you get down to it, is there to think about? Except the Soviet Union.
The Orwell and Camus essays are, I think, fairly representative of Mr. Podhoretz’s politico-critical modus operandi. I don’t propose to consider the other essays in the collection in the same way, but shall instead consider a theme that greatly preoccupies the author and runs, in one way or another, through almost all the essays. That theme is the relation of intellectuals to power.